“I never got paid,” Dewitt Solomon tells me. Nine months before the levees broke, Solomon had a minimum-wage job busing tables and washing dishes at Messina’s, a popular New Orleans tourist restaurant. But instead of paying him directly, Messina’s gave Solomon’s paychecks to the Orleans Parish Criminal Sheriff’s Office. Solomon, who was serving time in the Orleans Parish Prison–the eighth largest penal institution in the country and the largest correctional facility in Louisiana before Hurricane Katrina–was enrolled in the sheriff’s work-release program.
The prison was supposed to give him his wages, minus the $500 a month it deducted for room and board, the day it returned to Solomon his freedom. Solomon says that the sheriff still owes him $1,500.
Sitting at the kitchen table at his home in New Orleans’s West Bank, Solomon and I are feeding bottles to his twin sons. The babies weighed less than two pounds at birth. Now, at 13 months, they’re startlingly small but chugging away at the formula like they’re in a race to catch up. Solomon’s 5-year-old daughter is prancing around the room with a Dora the Explorer coloring book. She has proclaimed that the cartoon heroine is her twin sister. The resemblance is, actually, striking.
Solomon says he tried for months to recoup his lost earnings and never got a call back from the sheriff’s office. He gave up after floodwater washed away his only proof, the pay stubs he’d saved from the restaurant.
Solomon sounds more resigned than bitter. “It’s not that I couldn’t still use the money,” he says. “I’m just glad I got in and out before it got any worse.” Solomon describes how his brother-in-law was arrested on trespassing charges when he went to check on storm damage to his father’s home. His cousin was also arrested for a nonviolent crime weeks ago, and no one in the family has been able to make contact or even determine where he’s being held.
New Orleans has the highest incarceration rate of any major US city–double the national rate. Louisiana also locks up more people in local jails than any state due in part to state laws, unheard of in other parts of the country, that paralyze due process.
District attorneys have sixty days from the time of arrest in a felony case and forty-five days in a misdemeanor case to decide whether to press charges and typically use the full statutory time limit. From there, it takes an average of three months for detainees to get a court date. It can take up to three years to get to trial. According to a recent study by the Vera Institute of Justice, 41 percent of those entering the Orleans Parish Prison would qualify to be released on their own recognizance. Instead, the city opts to lock people up if they can’t post bail, which is true of three-quarters of the jail’s detainees.
While it was bad before the storm, “now the system is only working to pick people up,” says Loyola University law professor Bill Quigley. “It’s a vacuum, sucking poor people in and keeping them in. Being arrested now equals being sent to prison.”
Nearly a year after Katrina, the city’s backlog of cases reached at least 6,000. Judge Arthur Hunter of the Orleans Parish Criminal District Court declared that “it is a pathetic and shameful state of affairs the criminal justice system finds itself in” and said that he would mark the one-year anniversary of the storm by beginning to release poor defendants.