Two years after the devastation of New Orleans highlighted racism and inequality in the US, the disaster continues. New Orleans’ health care and education systems are still in crisis. Thousands of units of public housing sit empty. Nearly half the city’s population remains displaced. A report released this week by the Institute for Southern Studies reveals that, out of $116 billion in federal Katrina funds allocated, less than 30% has gone towards long-term rebuilding — and half of that 30% remains unspent.
The city’s criminal justice system, already rated among the worst in the nation by human rights organizations pre-Katrina, continues to be in crisis. After the storm, thousands of prisoners were abandoned in Orleans Parish Prison as the water was rising. In the days after Katrina, mainstream media depicted the people of New Orleans as looters and criminals, and a makeshift jail in a bus station was the first city function to re-open, just days after the storm.
For Robert Goodman, an activist around criminal justice issues who was born and raised in the schools and prisons of Louisiana, this demonizing and criminalization of the survivors was no surprise. He tells me that the primary crisis of New Orleans is a discriminatory and corrupt criminal justice system, adding that, “every time a black child is born in Louisiana, there’s already a bed waiting for him at Angola State Prison.”
On May 9, 2006, Robert Goodman’s brother was killed in an encounter with the New Orleans police. This was another death in a long list, including Jenard Thomas, an unarmed 25 year old, shot by police in front of his father a few months before Katrina, in a case that inspired weekly protests for months, until interrupted by the storm. The list also includes three deaths in Orleans Parish Prison this year, including, most recently, Glenn Thomas, the son of Rosetta James, another criminal justice reform activist.
A Broken System
In New Orleans, 95% of the detained youth in 1999 were Black. In 2004, Louisiana spent $96,713 to incarcerate each child in detention, and $4,724 to educate a child in the public schools. “When I went to prison, I was illiterate,” Goodman tells me. “I didn’t even know anything about slavery, about our history.”
New Orleans’ public defense system is in such poor shape that Orleans Parish Criminal District Court Judge Arthur Hunter recently complained that, “indigent defense in New Orleans is unbelievable, unconstitutional, totally lacking the basic professional standards of legal representation, and a mockery of what a criminal justice system should be in a Western civilized nation.”
Orleans Parish Prison, the city jail, was — pre-Katrina — the eighth largest jail in the US. Advocates complain that there is no forum for oversight over the jail or Marlin Gusman, the criminal Sheriff who oversees it. “We’ve suffered under a policy where the city builds a huge jail that is then required to be filled with human beings, or else it’s a waste of money,” states civil rights attorney Mary Howell.
Robert Goodman and Rosetta James are fighting to change the system that took away their loved ones, as part of a grassroots organization called Safe Streets Strong Communities. Safe Streets is struggling not just to reform the entire system, from policing and public defense to prison, but also to reframe the debate around these issues.
Safe Streets began as a coalition of grassroots activists and organizers from a number of organizations who came together post-Katrina to respond to the immediate crisis. “Our first priority was to help those individuals who had been in Orleans Parish Prison prior to Katrina, many of whom were being held illegally for minor, non-violent offenses,” explains co-director Norris Henderson. “In the early days, right after the storm, Safe Streets was basically performing triage for a broken system.”
In the transition from the crisis of Katrina to the long-term catastrophe that the city is still in, Safe Streets focused their energy on building their base, ensuring that people in communities most affected were shaping the priorities and making the decisions of the organization.
The organization has been one of the most inspiring stories of post-Katrina New Orleans. Shortly after Safe Streets began pressuring on the issue, the city’s indigent defense board was completely reconstituted and now includes people that actually care about poor people receiving a fair trial. After Safe Streets turned their focus to issues around policing, the city approved and funded an office of the independent monitor to oversee the police. In addition, the city council has begun looking at downsizing Orleans Parish Prison, as well as reducing the sheriff’s budget, and tying it to reform and greater accountability — also a part of Safe Street’s strategy.
More importantly, they helped reframe the debate around criminal justice in the city. Within a few months after the storm, instead of talk of more prisons, journalists and politicians were looking at the system, and the roots of the problems. Evidence of widespread police misconduct and people locked up for months without charges began to be reported.
For those that have been victimized by law enforcement violence, organizing and talking about what they have faced has already been transformative. “I can’t imagine where my family would be if it weren’t for Safe Streets,” Goodman tells me. “We would have been pushed to the side. This organizing inspired my mother to live another day.”
* A version of this story originally appeared in the July/August issue of ColorLines Magazine. See a special online collection of Katrina-related reporting at: www.colorlines.com/.