NO Justice in New Orleans
According to her report, there is a long, long way to go:
...Relief here has been so slow and inadequate that it is hard to know where to begin. More than six months after the storm, huge areas have no power and water; kids don’t have schools to go to; debris and destroyed cars are littered on deserted blocks, the list goes on and on.
I spent the week working at an organization called Safe Streets which works on police brutality and the criminal justice system here. And, I was hoping that y’all (note the southern influence) would take a minute to read about some of the horror stories that are a part of daily life for African-Americans and the poor here.
The New Orleans criminal justice system has a long history of discrimination, corruption, and abuse. Prior to the hurricane, the police department was already notorious for its abuse. Because it does not have an independent monitoring arm, reports were rarely followed up on. In fact, those who complained suffered further abuse and some were even killed. More police in New Orleans have been convicted of serious crimes than in any other city. Poor people not only face overworked public defenders, but the public defenders office is overseen by the same lawyer who represents the police and the defenders are appointed by judges who frown upon “vigorous defense” since it clogs their courtrooms.
As bad as all this is, conditions since the storm have gotten much worse. The public defenders are funded by traffic tickets and so their funding has dried up since the hurricane. Without even this minimal safe guard, police harassment and brutality have spun out of control. I met dozens of individuals being released from jail. The story which I heard over and over was that people are stopped walking down the street, in their cars, or in their homes without probable cause and without search warrants. They are never read their rights. Police refer to this as simply “street sweeping.”
When the police don’t find drugs, they charge individuals with public drunkenness which doesn’t even require a breathalyzer test, with public disturbance, with blocking a sidewalk, or with criminal trespass. I spoke with five men who were charged with criminal trespass in the home that they themselves were renting. They were arrested and charged despite producing renter’s receipts (could I produce renter’s receipts? No).
While many described their physical treatment as fair apart from the harassment of being arrested in the first place (lending credibility to their complaints), abuse on arrest is frequent. I met one man whose head was slammed on such a hot car hood that he suffered third degree burns and needed a skin graft on his face. Others have been beaten so badly vertebrae in their back or neck is broken. Yet unless, they have credible witnesses or a tape of the abuse like the retired school teacher Robert Davis, the police get away with it. One older gentleman who was arrested for trespassing in his own house was and told by the officer “You should never have brought your black ass back to New Orleans.”
After being arrested, they are taken down to the one jail still operating in New Orleans. Conditions in the jail are almost indescribable. People go without food for the first day. The cells have mold that make people sick. 40 people are crammed into cells that were built for 12. There is no ventilation or temperature control—which meant that this winter temperatures inside dipped to freezing on some nights and there are no blankets. When summer comes, it will be just as bad. Food and urine are on the floor and they have to use trash bags for toilets. Since there are no public defenders to press for a speedy release and FEMA pays for each person jailed, the people I met had languished in the jail anywhere from days to months. Some hadn’t even been given a phone call to let anyone know. All this before even being charged. So, it doesn’t help if the charges are ultimately dropped. The people I met never talked with a public defender. In fact the public defenders office recently recused itself from 3000 cases because it couldn’t provide effective counsel. Yet, this move simply left these people without any representation at all. The few who do see a public defender any time before their first court appearance are usually told to plead guilty without even being asked about their stories.
Less widespread but just as tragic, nearly 2000 people are still in jail awaiting charges or a trial from when Katrina hit…over six months ago. A few months ago, this came to light and a judge issued a decree that if the D.A. couldn’t bring charges by the end of January, the individuals had to be released. January has come and gone, but without anyone to enforce the decree, these people are still waiting in jail. The wardens are in no rush to let them go because they get FEMA money for each night they house the prisoners, the D.A.’s office would still like to bring charges when they get around to it, and the public defender’s office simply has no resources. Many would like to just plead guilty since they could get off with time already served. Even for those who do have charges brought against them, the average stay in prison before trial is 385 days and growing. One girl, only 17 at the time of arrest in
connection with a school shooting, had been in jail for 2 years awaiting trial when the storm hit. Her trial has now been postponed until at least September. Another man has been awaiting trial for five years.
New Orleans has a serious crime problem, but this treatment is abhorrent and the abuse of scarce resources only punishes an already beleaguered community. I was really shocked that conditions like this still existed right in our backyard. I know that most people don’t lead a life of leisure like me and can’t come down here to see for yourselves and help. By writing this email I was hoping to do what little I can to let people know about this tragedy and I hope you’ll do the same by mentioning it to your friends and family.
To those who regularly read this blog, and to those who stumble along only occasionally, please do your part and pass this information along. After all, the point of the blog revolution was to enable all of us to tell the stories that weren't being told by mainstream media, the stories that couldn't find a voice. Well, this is a story that isn't being told. But it can be.
Please spread the word.