Sr Lillian Flavin OP writes from Louisiana where she works with Hope House
The United States of America incarcerates a higher percentage of its people than any other country in the world. Louisiana has the highest incarceration rate of any state in the U.S. And New Orleans incarcerates more of its residents than any other part of Louisiana. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics report “Prisoners in 2012,” for every 100,000 Americans, an estimated 480 people were serving at least a one-year sentence in a state prison during the year. In some states, the rate of incarceration was much higher. Louisiana, the state with the highest rate, sentenced 893 people to a state prison for every 100,000 residents. Many thousands more served shorter sentences or sat in jail for months while awaiting trial.
Hope House has long been aware of the effects the criminal justice system has on people who are poor and people of color. Our neighbors are stopped and harassed by police without probable cause, and they are often arrested. It is rare to find young black men in this neighborhood who have not had a brush with the law, and since families are too poor to bond them out, they can spend weeks, months, and even years in jail awaiting trial just for “being in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
This “out of control” system wreaks havoc on individuals, families, and neighborhoods. If a head of household is arrested and has to stay in jail more than a month, he or she will more than likely lose his or her job and home. If relatives are not able to take care of the inmate’s children, the children will end up in foster care. In economically poor neighborhoods, many households can be facing this situation at the same time. This only puts another huge burden on people who are already struggling mightily. In many cases the crimes are petty and could be handled far more effectively without arrest and incarceration.
In addition, jail conditions are terrible. The jail is damaged, poorly maintained, over-crowded and dangerous. Violence is common. Sheer boredom and depression are endemic. Medical and psychological care is terribly inadequate. Physical assaults and rapes are far too common. In the last five years 25 (inmates) have died while in the custody of the criminal sheriff. These included murder, suicide, and death due to natural causes that often could have been prevented by good medical care. The jail is not a safe or healthy place in which to be forced to live. And it should be emphasized that most of the jail’s inmates have not been convicted of the crime for which they were arrested; they are awaiting trial. They have not been convicted, but they are being punished.
In 2004 Hope House and several other organizations formed the Orleans Parish Prison Reform Coalition (OPPRC) to demand reforms. The group created a nine point platform for change and used it as an educational and political tool in preparation for the election of a new criminal sheriff. Every candidate publicly agreed to enact the platform, including the winner – Marlin Gusman.
But before Gusman had time to act on most of the platform’s points, Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans. Prison buildings were badly damaged and over 6000 inmates were evacuated (after the storm had passed) to other jails and prisons across the state. When they returned, they were confined again in these same damaged buildings, unfit for human habitation. I started visiting the women inmates again two months after Katrina and I can say, from firsthand experience, that prison conditions were beyond appalling.
When the federal government allocated funds to rebuild Orleans Parish Prison, Gusman developed plans to build a new prison complex capable of housing over 5,000 people. In response, Hope House and other organizations revived OPPRC to push city officials to create a small, safe and humane jail for New Orleans, instead. Through careful research, meetings with city, state and federal officials, public education about mass incarceration and jail conditions, non-violent public protests, and legal action things are changing. A city ordinance limited the size of the new jail to 1438 beds. A federal consent decree is forcing the sheriff and the city to address conditions in the jail (safety, cleanliness, physical and mental health services, etc.).
OPPRC continues to research and promote alternatives to incarceration, including pre-trial services, a day reporting center, greater use of the summons in lieu of arrest, more efficient court procedures to lessen the length of pre-trial incarceration, and the decriminalization of a variety of minor, non-violent offenses. The city has begun to experiment with some of these approaches.
Money, power and institutional lethargy continue to get in the way of positive change. As a result, we are always “stepping on people’s toes.” This is inevitable if we are in solidarity with the poor, whose interests and needs are most often ignored.