In Katrina’s Wake, Criminal Justice Reform Takes Hold in New Orleans

I was one of the lucky ones. When Hurricane Katrina hit 10 years ago this month, I was out of town. Most folks never evacuate.

As the storm approached, officials adopted “contraflow” evacuation measures, scattering outbound traffic in different directions to ease congestion. I had vacation scheduled in September in Memphis, and convinced the family to just go there early. We arrived and checked in with folks back home; everybody said the storm had come and gone. So we were gearing up to head back when we turned on CNN, and saw what had happened.

I had received a Soros Justice Fellowship earlier that year, to work on felony disenfranchisement and the rights of the formerly incarcerated, like myself. I was supposed to start that fall. But then the storm hit, and changed my course. A group of us got together and starting talking about the crisis and the opportunity it presented to push the envelope on criminal justice reform in New Orleans. 

The city’s justice system had completely broken down. We started looking at the courts, the police department, the jail—and tried to insert ourselves into the conversation as people started talking about how to fix things. We created an organization called Safe Streets, Strong Communities and took on three campaigns: to downsize the jail, which at the time was the most overcrowded in the country; to make the police department more accountable; and to change the way the public defender’s office operated, making it focus less on pleasing judges and more on taking care of clients.

There was pushback on every front. And it took a lot of arm-twisting and advocacy. But we prevailed. Out of the chaos, we were able to create an independent office to monitor the police department. We were able to change the public defender’s office. And while the conversation about the size of the jail is continuing, we’ve been able to achieve a substantial drop. There were over 6,500 detainees there at the time of the storm. Under the latest plan put forward by the city, the jail is capped at 1,438.

We’ve had a lot of victories. But this war continues. Police are still misbehaving—not just in Ferguson and Baltimore, but here in Louisiana, too. The same underlying circumstances that caused chaos in many parts of the city are still evident today.

As the media marks the 10th anniversary of the storm, there’s a lot of focus on how resilient the people of New Orleans are. The city is resilient, but we haven’t recovered. Tens of thousands of people have not been able to come home. Too many kids have no place to go to school. Access to housing and health care is inadequate.

The water’s gone down, but too many of our folks are still drowning. 

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10 yrs. already is what I think as a NOLA ex-pat, and watching the beast unfold on TV in Minneapolis. Born '57 and lived in N.O. for 28yrs.
Still hard to beleive the injustice that still survives in a city with such good hearts and souls.
My parents came from Hungary, surviving the Nazi's and communist, and rejected the practice of moving the "sign" on buses, behind which blacks were to sit; thus a life lesson for me.
Thanks for your hard work bringing justice to the people of New Orleans. Your work seems so far under the radar…have you been on MSNBC show MHP (Mellisa Harris Perry) Prof. at Tulane?

Big Kidd Meets Hurricane Katrina
By Shannon Hager
Anytime a hurricane entered the Gulf of Mexico, I stayed glued to the television, nervous as hell. Hurricane Katrina was no exception. News broadcasters covered hurricane parties in the French Quarter while tracking projected paths Katrina might take.
Even though the hurricane looked like it would make land-fall somewhere other than New Orleans, traffic leaving town increased as people evacuated. Interstate-10 resembled a parking lot and long lines of cars snaked through gas stations. I got a headache looking at it on the television.
I talked to my husband Big Kidd when he called from the Orleans Parish Prison to say goodnight. He had been locked up there for six months. For all either of us knew on that Friday evening, neither of us was evacuating. He was in jail and I was going to work early on Saturday morning at the nursing home. I hung up the phone and went to bed.
By the time Mayor Ray Nagin issued the mandatory evacuation order, it came so late that the nursing home staff didn’t have much time to prepare sixty-eight patients to leave town. At noon on Sunday, the patients, thirty-five staff members and sixteen of the staffs’ children were on our way to Baton Rouge in a convoy of vehicles, arriving there eight hours later on a trip normally taking an hour and a half. We settled into a nursing home that agreed to take us in. There had been no way to let Big Kidd know that I was in Baton Rouge. You can’t just call up the jail and ask to speak to some prisoner. I knew Big Kidd would be worried when I didn’t answer the phone.
Seven thousand people were locked up in the Orleans Parish Prison the weekend before Hurricane Katrina hit, including my husband. I thought for sure Sheriff Marlin Gusman would evacuate them once Mayor Nagin issued the mandatory evacuation order and that my husband was somewhere safe. But, I didn’t know for sure and I worried a lot about him.
Two days later I saw a news story on the TV about hundreds of prisoners from the Orleans Parish Prison stranded on the Interstate-10 overpass waiting for help. I peered hard at the faces of the black prisoners dressed in various shades of orange. I was looking for Big Kidd.
I figured the old and sick out first, right? He’s old and he’s sick; he would be one of the first to go. I tried calling the Orleans Parish Prison but there was no answer because it flooded and the phones didn’t work. I sought help through law enforcement officers to find Big Kidd and two weeks later, I learned that he was in the parish jail in Shreveport. The following day I called my supervisor at the nursing home and told her I wouldn’t be coming in to work. Then I drove to north Louisiana, to Shreveport.
After a bunch of rigmarole with jailhouse deputies who finally let me in, I sat down in a plastic chair in front of a thick glass window. Big Kidd sat down on a metal stool bolted to the floor on the other side. l barely recognized him. He was much thinner and very pale. His head was shaved completely free of hair. A faded orange jailhouse jumpsuit hung loosely on him. He smiled weakly at me. We looked at each other and started to cry. My chest hurt as we picked up the phones on either side of the window.
After we composed ourselves Big Kidd said, “I knew you’d find me. I’m OK, how are you?”
“I’m all right,” I said. “I’m with the nursin’ home in Baton Rouge. We evacuated. But, what about you? You don’t look so good.”
Smiling thinly, Big Kidd sighed, “By the grace of God, I’m still alive. That jail was hell. Before the storm hit, we were freakin’ out. When we lost electricity, the TV went out and there went our only source of information. We were left to die in those cages and we were terrified.”
I listened and sobbed.
“We panicked when it got dark. Guys shook the bars tryin’ to get out. We pleaded with the guards to let us out so we wouldn’t drown but they ignored us. They were freakin’ out too. A lot of rapin’ was goin’ on. Guys went all the way crazy. I’ll have nightmares about this until the day I die,” Big Kidd said and then paused to rub his face.
“No food, no water for several days. I didn’t have no medicine for a week. I have a hard time rememberin’ what happened,” he said.
I sighed and took a deep breath.
“Several days after the storm, police came to rescue us. A few at a time, we waded out of the jail into water up to our necks and got in some boats. Angola prison guards who came to help evacuate the jail were on the boats. They wiped our faces when we climbed in from that filthy water. I never thought I’d be so happy to see Angola prison guards,” Big Kidd said.
“I saw rats and snakes and dead bodies floatin’ in the water. We was surrounded by garbage. After I got in that boat I looked at my body. I looked like I was covered with fish scales.” Big Kidd gave a great sob, never taking his eyes from mine.
My heart shattered like glass and my own eyes again overflowed with painful tears.
“I’m sorry,” he said, “I’ll quit talkin’ about it, I don’t want to upset you.”
“No, no, please go on,” I whispered into the phone.
“They put us on buses, brought us here to the Shreveport jail. Shaved our heads, strip searched us and deloused us. Deputies told us they don’t like us Ninth Ward niggahs and they don’t want us here. They haven’t made our stay pleasant. A fight broke out on the tier yesterday and the deputies used tear gas to break it up. Before it was over, I got stun-gunned. At my age, I’m seventy-three you know, I almost died. I still don’t feel right.”
Our visit lasted two hours. When it was over I drove back to Baton Rouge with a very heavy heart. The next day I went back to work.
Big Kidd and I waited for the legal system to sort out the New Orleans prisoners scattered all over Louisiana. Some of the prisoners had been arrested just before Katrina made landfall and some had been waiting to go to trial. Other prisoners had already been convicted and waiting for bed space in the state system and guys like Big Kidd were at the jail waiting for hearings on their post-conviction appeals.
The destruction of legal records stored in the flooded courthouse basement didn’t help matters. Big Kidd’s legal file couldn’t be found in the best of times and now, with all that water in the courthouse basement, clerks scattered throughout the South on evacuation, judges holed up somewhere more pleasant than post-Katrina New Orleans, legal files stewed and molded in the basement. As the water slowly receded so did our dreams of Big Kidd’s freedom.

HI Norris and All,
I am really interested in the work being done by Open Society and all the 'fellows'. I too am an ex-offender here in Canada on the east coast and also a former resident of New Orleans (back in '95 & '97). I recently took part in the video advocacy training in Budapest and am real eager to connect with you to find out more about VOTE. I have a lot to say based on my experiences and just recently sat on a panel in support of our brothers & sisters inside on Prisoners' Rights Day at our local library here in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Our local correctional centre is super max and majority of offenders are substance-using non-violent offenders with no support prior to or upon re-entry.
Anyway, I am glad to have come across this piece and hope to learn more about what you do and how we could support each other. Hoping to hear from you,

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