Delegation Calls for New Orleans Not Rebuilt on Failed Policies of Incarceration

Tamika Middleton
Date Published: 
October 1, 2005

Attached files

Katrina-II-C-Prison-35.doc6.38 KB
Delegation Calls for New Orleans Not Rebuilt on Failed Policies of Incarceration
By Tamika Middleton
On September 2nd, Burl Cain volunteered to leave his post as the warden of Louisiana State Prison (also known as Angola) to run the new jail in New Orleans. The jail was converted from a Greyhound station to hold 700 prisoners, and has already processed 250 people, mostly Black men arrested for "looting." On the door, a sign reportedly says: "We Are Taking New Orleans Back."
But back from whom? New Orleans is a city devastated first by a storm and then by government indifference and inaction. The 100,000 people who didn't or couldn't evacuate, largely poor and Black, were left for days to fend for themselves under conditions most Americans cannot fathom. It is these same communities of poor Black people who give New Orleans its rich history of civil rights struggle and cultural innovation in all areas of the arts.
But never mind its history: Burl Cain says that it is the jail, the cages spread out behind the bus station, that is "a real start to rebuilding this city."
If the priority in rebuilding New Orleans is the jails, it is a telling reflection of the local and national government response to Katrina and its aftermath: "law and order" first, meeting needs and saving lives dead last. Just two days after the hurricane hit and thousands of people were without food, water, or shelter, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin ordered 1,500 local police to cease search and rescue operations and focus instead on arresting "looters." Then, national guard units, some fresh from Iraq, were told by Louisiana's governor to shoot those "looters" on sight.
Katrina's aftermath reflects the way we as a nation increasingly deal with social ills: Police and imprison primarily poor Black communities for "crimes" that are reflections of poverty and desperation. This emphasis on "law and order" has historically had a devastating impact on the people of Louisiana. Louisiana ranks first in the rate ofincarceration in the U.S. Blacks are grossly over-represented, making up 72% of the state prison population, while only representing 35% of the total population.
Between 1980 and 2000, public sector employment in policing and corrections increased 413% in Louisiana compared with a 44% increase in employment in public welfare and a 93% increase in employment in higher education. In addition, Louisiana taxpayers spend $96,713 to incarcerate a single child, and $4,724 to educate a child in the public schools.
Are these the kinds of priorities we want to create? Or do we want to use our resources to actually provide for New Orleanians and the people of Louisiana?
As New Orleans dries out, stories are surfacing - confirmation from independent attorneys' interviews with prisoners and a report issued by Human Rights Watch that people in Louisiana's system were left to fend for themselves, and possibly to drown when they were unable to escape rising water in locked cells, in Old Parish Prison. We are also learning that hundreds of people arrested on minor violations that should have been released - able to find their families and loved ones - were held for weeks after the hurricane.
As New Orleans begins cleaning up, local residents are quickly organizing to resist the looming pressure of major developers, government interests, and big corporations already chomping at what they see as so much newly empty land. In the rebuilding of this incredible city, we refuse to let jail cells serve as our foundation.
This week, a delegation of local community organizers, attorneys, former prisoners and family members, and local politicians will be on hand to look into the treatment of prisoners during and after the evacuation and to raise important questions facing the new New Orleans. The delegation, called by Critical Resistance, Families and Friends of Louisiana's Incarcerated Children, and many others, will call for holding the city and state accountable for the treatment of prisoners, an independent investigation into the circumstances of their evacuation, and the reconstruction of communities and neighborhoods that are the life of New Orleans, led by those communities most devastated by the storm, with the help of all those left in its wake.
Tamika Middleton is a New Orleans resident and the Southern Regional Coordinator for Critical Resistance.
For more information on the delegation'sfindings, visit