Today I would like to offer something a little more personal than my usual blog posts. After the “Hurricane Isaac Experience” I would really like to share my personal perspective.
Last week we had a spot of unpleasant weather down here on the Gulf Coast that took out almost 700,000 people’s power across Louisiana. Most of them, like myself, for five or six days. Some still remain in the dark as I write this.
Hurricane Isaac not only knocked out the lights, but also sat over the area more than three times as long as the average hurricane. That means a lot of water, and a lot of people in outlying areas seeing it in their homes. The truly eerie aspect of it for those of us down here was that the storm arrived on the seventh anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.
How does this tie in with our usual topics? Easily. As the land washed away under the feet of Plaquemines and St. John the Baptist Parish residents the specter of homelessness and financial ruin became very real for much of our rural population. Thousands of residents from St. John the Baptist Parish alone became refugees, the status of their home and employment lost to view.
Make no mistake about it, homelessness looms. It is still to early to have any accurate data as the hard hit rural regions are only starting to be assessed, but the sheer volume of water has ensured that many lost everything. Just to the Southeast of New Orleans the town of Braithewaite is only now emerging from the muck.
So many of us teeter on the edge. As the recession drags on more and more families find themselves living paycheck to paycheck. The advent of a natural disaster – be it hurricane, earthquake, wildfire or something else – can suddenly leave a person both homeless and jobless.
Tuesday evening the Southern Poverty Law Center filed for a preliminary injunction against the New Orleans sheriff’s office. This filing pointedly requested the intervention of a federal judge due to the severity of the allegations.
This action come a mere one month after the SPLC filed a proposed class-action lawsuit against Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman over unsafe and unconstitutional jail conditions. Allegations that were supported by a Department of Justice inspection a few weeks later that found “inadequate staffing levels in jail facilities, pervasive violence and substandard mental health care.”
These findings were hardly shocking to anyone who was paying attention back in 2009 when prior DOJ investigations revealed a similar level of unconstitutional activities. In the intervening time, to the intense frustration of advocates, there was practically no public communication from the feds or local authorities about how to resolve the problems.
This latest filing by the SPLC requests U.S. District Judge Lance Africk to both grant investigating attorneys “expedited discovery” and hold a hearing about the conditions in jail within the next 90 days. (It is worth noting that Gusman’s office had asked last month for an extension of the original lawsuit.)
As if the findings prompting the lawsuit were not enough, reports are now filtering in about escalating violence in the facilities under scrutiny – violence that seems to have a level of retribution in its make-up.
Since the lawsuit, there has been an ‘uptick’ in violence, while inmates who need mental health care continue to be neglected, wrote Katie Schwartzmann, managing attorney for the law center. For example, the filing accuses jail deputies of anally raping an inmate with an object, beating up another shackled inmate and failing to protect three inmates attacked by other inmates.
One of the original plaintiffs, inmate Kent Anderson, signed an affidavit that deputies have threatened him since the lawsuit, saying they could move him back to a jail facility where he believes isn’t safe. ‘Since my lawyers filed the lawsuit, things have been hell for me. Deputies tell me, ‘You want to complain about things? You want to tell your lawyers? We’ll send you back to Old Parish Prison,” according to the affidavit.
Our justice system is flat out broken, there is no other way to truthfully describe it. Conditions of overcrowding and violence are found across the nation, and often in facilities housing not only male offenders, but also those incarcerating women and youths.The situation in Orleans Parish Prison is a horrible reminder of this fact.
On March 22, 2012 at the Ashe Cultural Arts Center of New Orleans a very interesting panel took place.
The Lens convened a panel of five criminal and juvenile criminal justice experts from the New Orleans area to address issues surrounding the new French Quarter Curfew, LGBTQ youth issues in juvenile facilities, the rebuilding of the Youth Studies Center, and the school-to-prison pipeline. (While the discussion is focused on New Orleans, many of the topics covered are relevant to communities everywhere.)
For those who are unaware, I am a native of New Orleans. This is one reason that I take the issue of juvenile justice so very seriously. All one needs is a moment on Google to see just how many hurdles we face down here ranging from the disparity in how justice is meted out according to race to the profound lack of effective facilities and trained staff.
This was thrown into very sharp relief recently when a 26 year old juvenile justice specialist was attacked in the Bridge City Center for Youth. The unnamed woman watched as inmates barricaded the door, ripped the phone from the wall, smashed her radio, and spent the next 45 minutes groping and threatening to rape her. The three youth’s involved were age 14, 15, and 16 respectively.
According to the Sheriff’s Office, as one of the boys cursed and taunted the woman, one of the boys was seen with his genitals exposed in front of the woman. The accused “ringleader,” Normand said, was being held in the facility on attempted murder charges.
The woman was rescued after one of the boys covered the security camera with a rug, blacking out the camera. An employee passing the video viewing room noticed the camera blacked out and alerted other counselors.
There are many troubling aspects to this, and in my opinion most of them are directly traceable to lack of funding and accountability. An editorial on NOLA.com points out many of the worrisome issues surrounding this incident:
But while the office is characterizing its response as swift, one important action didn’t happen quickly: reporting the incident to local law enforcement. The Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office didn’t learn about the attack until two days after it happened, according to spokesman Col. John Fortunato. That delay is hard to understand. Even though the suspects were already in custody, local law enforcement officials surely should be alerted when a crime takes place at the center. If calling the Sheriff’s Office isn’t part of the youth center’s protocol, it should be.
Investigators also need to determine why a single female counselor was supervising 11 teenage boys on her own. Two other employees were absent, but there should be a better backup plan when there are staffing shortages.
How’s that for a direct effect of staff shortages? Having a young woman assaulted and threatened with rape. It’s a side of the equation that many don’t even consider. The editorial also touches on the aspect that I find most troublesome – how long it took for someone to notice.
The WDSU report notes that the woman was assigned to the justice dormitory because two other employees were absent. That may well be the case, but one young woman to eleven youth offenders is not a safe equation no matter how you slice it. The editorial continues:
It’s also troubling that it took nearly an hour for other staffers to realize the woman was in trouble. Another employee, who happened to be passing the video control room, noticed an inmate throwing a rug over a camera, Col. Fortunato said. Video cameras are only useful as a monitoring tool if someone is paying attention to them.
So another staffer noticed because he happened to be walking by the video monitoring room? Where were the staff that were supposed to be watching the feed? Were they downsized out of a job or were they simply neglecting their duties?
Unfortunately this is not an isolated incident for the facility. Not only that but the local law enforcement agrees with assessment that budget cuts are to blame. Maya Rodriguez of WWL TV brings us the details (keep your eyes out for Dana Kaplan, who we recently interviewed here on HE):
“The state has got to step up and provide the necessary funding to make sure that these facilities are safe and secure and that’s not what’s happening at the present time,” said Sheriff Normand. How true. His campaign to release juvenile records however is an iffy one. A number of programs like that have been being implemented across the U.S. and many of them have crashed and burned. Among others the ACLU is challenging the practice in a number of jurisdictions.
It’s easy to get mad at the offenders here, their behavior was vile there is no doubt. If we wish to effect any sort of lasting change, a way to prevent this sort of incident, then we need to look at long term solutions. That requires funding.
The really frustrating part is that funding of the proper programs now will result in both more effective programs and less overall financial expenditure. With budgets tight everywhere politicians want to show immediate savings, even if that means that the long term costs, both human and financial, will skyrocket.
Since becoming the Executive Director in the fall of 2007, Dana Kaplan has been steadfast in her dedication to the reform of Louisiana’s juvenile justice system. Prior to joining JJPL, Dana Kaplan was a Soros Justice Fellow at the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) in New York City, focused on detention reform. At CCR, Ms. Kaplan worked with community groups and government on developing alternatives to detention and downsizing local jails in states including Tennessee, California, Ohio, New Orleans, and New York. She was also the State-wide Organizer for the New York Campaign for Telephone Justice, a partnership between CCR and two prison family organizations that successfully reduced the cost of all phone calls from New York State prisons by fifty percent. Ms. Kaplan has also been on staff at the Brooklyn-based Prison Moratorium Project, where her efforts helped stop the construction of a youth prison in upstate New York and two youth jail expansions in New York City. She has consulted with national organizations including The National Resource Center on Prisons and Communities and the National Education Association (NEA), developing a curriculum for teachers on “Education not Incarceration”. Dana holds a Bachelor of Arts from the University of California at Berkeley and was a recipient of the John Gardner Fellowship for Public Service.
About JJPL When the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana (JJPL) first opened our doors in 1997, our state was acknowledged to have one of the country’s worst systems to treat and prevent delinquency. In July of that year, the New York Times called Louisiana home to the “most troubled” juvenile public defender’s office in the country.1 That same month — after earlier reports in 1995 and 1996 by Human Rights Watch and the United States Department of Justice (DOJ) — the DOJ detailed brutal and inhumane conditions in Louisiana’s juvenile prisons, bringing international shame to the system. Louisiana’s juvenile justice system provided virtually no representation for children accused of crimes and then placed them in hyper-violent prisons where they regularly suffered bodily and emotional harm. The large majority of these children were African-American.
JJPL’s mission is to transform the juvenile justice system into one that builds on the strengths of young people, families and communities to ensure children are given the greatest opportunities to grow and thrive. We have three key program objectives to achieve this mission: to reduce the number of children in secure care and abolish unconstitutional conditions of confinement by improving or, when necessary, shutting down institutions that continue to inhumanely treat children; to expand evidence-based alternatives to incarceration and detention for youth; and to build the power of those most impacted by the juvenile justice system.
JJPL litigates on behalf of youth both locally and statewide. Additionally, we educate policy makers on the need for reform, coordinate with parents, youth and other concerned citizens to ensure their visibility and participation in the process, and actively implement media strategies to hold the state accountable for the treatment of its youth. By coordinating our diverse abilities in strategic campaigns to engage policy makers and organize community members and youth, JJPL continues to work on improving the lives of Louisiana’s most vulnerable children. In the past fourteen years of our existence, we have accomplished many achievements.
Let’s start the new year off with a great resource that I just discovered.
Juvenile Justice Matters is an online radio program produced by the Campaign for Youth Justice. The CYJ is a national organization dedicated to ending the practice of trying, sentencing and incarcerating youth under the age of 18 in the adult criminal justice system, a cause we whole-heartedly support. This radio show features experts, young people, and parents discussing juvenile justice issues.
As we strive to move forward on this issue one of our best resources is information. This show is not only a rich source of pertinent info, but it is also fantastic for bringing a multiplicity of perspectives to the table. Here are a few sample shows for you to try out, if you enjoy them share them with your friends. After all, the more of us have good data at hand the easier time we will have in trying to implement effective programs.
Let’s beging with an interview with New Orleans Judge David Bell discuss juvenile justice reform and a model that other judges should consider when sentencing kids.
Another great example of their work is a discussion with Michael Kemp, a formerly incarcerated youth from the Washington, D.C. area. Michael is determined to turn his life around and break the vicious cycle of returning to prison. Michael was charged as an adult at the age of 17, but first ran into the system at 12.
One reason I am as dedicated to this blog as I am is that I am from New Orleans. Since last Thursday we have had 197 murders here so far this year alone — last year’s tally was 175 or 51 murders per 100,000 residents. That’s 10 times the national average. Most of them committed by our inner city youth.
Crime here has always been extreme, but since Hurricane Katrina and the levee failures that followed it things have gotten so much worse. The real tragedy is that often both the victims and the perpetrators of these killings are the city’s youth. Poverty, low quality education, and many other factors have been entrenched here for close to 300 years, but there has been an added array of issues added to the mix in the post storm era.
Why has it been so difficult to staunch the killings, even with new leadership at the police department and the conviction of several officers involved in post-Katrina shootings of civilians? Katrina and the ensuing collapse of schools, home life and other support structures likely played a role, says Lance Hill, executive director of the New Orleans-based Southern Institute for Education and Research, who has tracked crime trends.
Children displaced by the floods returned with their families to a wrecked city, bounced from school to school and lacked mental health professionals to help them through the trauma, he says.
Six years later, many of those kids are under-educated, unemployed and seeping into trouble, Hill says. School expulsion rates also soared after Katrina, putting more kids on the street, he says.
‘The spike in violence we’re seeing …was in fact predicted by experts,’ Hill says. ‘Their warnings went unheeded.’
It is because of the Humane Exposures approach of rehabilitation and addressing the root causes of crime that I consider this blog important. All I have to do is look at the current local debate about whether to call in the National Guard because of the shootings to see the the results of neglecting these sources of anomie.
Over our first year back in New Orleans in the wake of the disaster my wife often commented on the fact that we had become a city without elders. Since grandparents are a culturally vital part of ours of any other community you can see the problem. Additionally, once tightly knit family groups were scattered to the four winds, with many financially unable to effect a return even unto this day. While poor parenting skills are certainly a factor here, in many cases the parents have not returned to the city, but the kids have. In the meantime mental health resources have progressed from nonexistent to marginal over the years, and are not easily accessible for adults or children.
Education, mental health care, and substance abuse programs are all vital and effective alternatives to incarceration. They are also a good vaccination against the behaviors that lead to it. Right now New Orleans is buried in a crime wave spawned by a lack of all of these factors.
If you need a good argument a to why these tactics should be embraced just take a look at our murder rate here in the Crescent City. By the time you read this it may have passed the 200 mark.
To take a penetrating look at the needs and challenges of society's disenfranchised—the denizens of our streets, the emotionally and physically incarcerated, children in juvenile hall and in unsettled homes. To encourage public awareness of the causes that underlie the destructive cycles plaguing these populations, including the abuse and neglect that cycle through generations; to underscore that the economic burden on society is lightened when these issues are addressed. To use photography, books, film, education, and advocacy to increase understanding and engender humane response.