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Left to Die | The Nation

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Left to Die

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As bad as this was, it was only the beginning of the indignities the evacuated prisoners were to face. They found themselves in an impromptu patchwork of overcrowded state prisons, parish jails and facilities opened just to accommodate evacuated prisoners. The unluckiest among them, mostly from Jefferson Parish, found themselves at Jena Correctional, a former juvenile prison owned by the Wackenhut Corrections Corporation that was closed after the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana, Human Rights Watch and the Justice Department exposed widespread beatings of incarcerated children there in the late 1990s. That spirit was kept alive in the new incarnation of the prison: Evacuated prisoners were routinely and viciously beaten by their jailers, guards from other facilities who were without a chain of command and for whom there was zero possibility of accountability. Rachel Jones of the Louisiana Capital Assistance Center, a pro bono attorney who was working there at the time, told me that after being a public defender in Brooklyn and a capital trial attorney in Louisiana, "I have never seen anything like it."

About the Author

Billy Sothern
Billy Sothern, a New Orleans anti-death penalty lawyer and a Soros Justice Media Fellow, is a frequent contributor to...

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Jones said the inmates were bruised all over their bodies. They passed her little notes saying "help" when the guards weren't looking and reported that guards were calling them "nigger" and "boy." When she returned days later to follow up, they had been brutalized even more; some reported having received beatings from guards as retaliation. After visiting with many inmates at various prisons and jails, it became clear to her that these incidents were widespread, and she made it her top priority to get guys who didn't belong there out of jail.

Jones and a handful of other lawyers, including Phyllis Mann, a veteran Louisiana criminal defense attorney, began poring over the available records on the evacuated inmates and found thousands who had been unconstitutionally and illegally imprisoned. Many should have been released weeks or months earlier, as their sentences had long since expired. Some had been picked up on charges in the days before the storm for municipal offenses like unpaid traffic tickets and had never been before a judge, as required by the Constitution. Others were simply sitting in jail, awaiting trial for minor crimes for which the maximum sentence was far less than the amount of time they had already served. While some of these people have been released in the past month, many remain incarcerated and separated from their families when they are most needed. For example, as recently as mid-November, David Moffett, a 43-year-old man from New Orleans, was still incarcerated in a Bossier Parish jail on a ten-day sentence begun August 22 for public drunkenness.

Who was there to make sure that these citizens, victims of one of the country's worst natural disasters, were not further deprived of their Eighth Amendment right to dignified treatment as prisoners, their right to due process under law and their right to the presumption of innocence? There was no public defender's office zealously fighting for their rights because New Orleans has no real public defender's office. Nor was there a crusading prisoners' rights organization on the ground to provide meaningful oversight of the state's treatment of its vulnerable wards. Beyond the handful of volunteer lawyers, no one was there for these people, and though the volunteers have been diligent, their work has not been sufficient to address the needs of everyone.

It is hard to believe that a state with one of the highest per capita incarceration rates in the United States--which itself is a world leader in incarceration--does not have a single organization or agency dedicated to the rights of prisoners, but it's true. Sadly, by orders of magnitude, there were more rescue people in Louisiana to protect the "animal rights" of dogs than there were lawyers or activists to protect the human rights of thousands of our citizens.

While New Orleans does not have a full-time public defender, the city is obligated by the Sixth Amendment of the Constitution, like every other town in the United States, to provide free attorneys to poor people who are otherwise unable to defend themselves against charges leveled by the state. That service in New Orleans is provided through the Orleans Parish Indigent Defender Board, which contracts with a group of part-time attorneys who, when they are not taking paid cases or writing wills and estates for their regular clients, are assigned to represent the thousands of poor people annually charged with crimes in New Orleans. Like so many things in the city, these part-time contracts have become patronage positions appointed more on the basis of fealty to political players than concern for the rights of the accused. In the weeks and months after the storm, these public defenders were nowhere to be found, although they were counsel of record for nearly all the evacuated prisoners. When asked about the prison crisis and his concerns about the rights of his clients, Tilden Greenbaum, head of the Indigent Defender Board, told the New York Times his clients were being patient. "Sooner or later, we're going to have to start making noise about it," he said. "But given the magnitude of what everybody's been through, now is not the time to push."

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