Moving beyond us vs. them: Mayor Landrieu and racial divisiveness

By Pam Nath, Bridge the Gulf

Judge Lance Africk heard arguments in United States District Court last week regarding a consent decree designed to correct the violent, inhumane, life-threatening conditions at the Orleans Parish Prison (OPP), a jail that an expert witness from a nonprofit criminal justice research and training firm described as the "worst jail I've ever seen." The parties involved in the court action include the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Department of Justice, the sheriff's office and the City of New Orleans. 

In his opening statement, the private attorney that New Orleans Mayor Landrieu has contracted to represent the city explained that they didn't dispute claims regarding the poor conditions in the jail, but instead were arguing that the consent decree would "adversely impact the other 370,000 residents of New Orleans." Incarcerated people, he said, shouldn't get better treatment than the poor working class. In response to testimony regarding the dire neglect of the mental health needs of those jailed at OPP (neglect that has in multiple cases resulted in death), Landrieu's attorney repeatedly asked witnesses what they knew about the condition of residents with mental health issues who are not incarcerated, at one point saying directly "Inmates shouldn't be getting better treatment than the general public." He asserted (and Sheriff Marlin Gusman agreed) that the primary consideration when looking at the consent decree needed to be the welfare and safety of those not incarcerated. The week before last, the mayor called an emergency city council meeting at which his deputy mayor presented graph after graph portending dire consequences if the city is required to bear the costs of the $22 million dollar consent decree, consequences ranging from increased response times for the fire department, EMS, and mosquito and termite control; layoffs for city employees; to closing of NORD summer camps.  

Hopefully this "us vs. them" strategy will fail; it's a strategy which pits the lives and well-being of two groups of New Orleans residents, those who are being held at OPP and those who are not, against each other. Many of the "other 370,000" residents of the city care deeply about the conditions of the jail. In a city that incarcerates more of its residents than anywhere else in the world, a lot of people have either spent time in OPP themselves or know someone (a family member, a friend, a co-worker) who has. If you know someone who has been in OPP, claims that people imprisoned there are being given perks not available to the general public, or as stated in one of the city's legal filings are not entitled to "steaks and cognac" are beyond ridiculous. Instead of steaks and cognac, the reality is that New Orleans residents who find themselves in OPP are all too often served up medical neglect, rape and other forms of violence, and all kinds of emotional trauma.

I think, for example about the matriarch of the family who lives next door to me. She's never spent time in OPP herself and probably never will, but she cares intimately about the conditions there; she knows how easily her sons and daughters, grandsons and granddaughters, nieces and nephews could end up in OPP, for something small or large, that they did or didn't do. She knows they could end up adding to the toll of the now 39 people who have died while incarcerated in OPP since 2006, or the 700 assaulted there yearly, or the many others who are routinely left without critical medicines or other needed medical treatment, left unsupervised despite being suicidal, or subjected to many other forms of emotional trauma. Trauma on the inside spreads as trauma to friends, family members, neighbors, etc. on the outside. Cages may constrain people but they do not contain injury.

A year ago, Mayor Landrieu's 19-year-old son was arrested for driving while intoxicated. At the time, I reflected on how hard it would be for a public figure, in a public spotlight, dealing with the messiness that exists in all our lives and in all our families. But the privilege that Mayor Landrieu and his son have, because of race, class, and political power, means that Landrieu is relatively free from the fear that his son might get drunk or high, get in a car, end up in OPP, and be raped or left to die while his medical needs go unmet. Otherwise, Mayor Landrieu might recognize that the "adverse impacts" that result from the unthinkable conditions in OPP are critical to the well being of all the residents of New Orleans.

Only racial and economic privilege leaves some of New Orleans' 370,000 residents far enough removed from anyone who has spent or is likely to spend time in OPP that Landrieu's "us vs. them" appeal can seem to make sense. Racial disparities in stops, arrests, detention duration, and severity of sentences are stark. Studies have consistently shown that white folks use illegal substances at the same or higher rates than do people of color, but their arrest rates are dramatically lower. In reviewing New Orleans data, jail expert James Austin found that when African-American inmates and white inmates are arrested on the same charges, African-American inmates serve significantly more time in jail. Many white folks are largely insulated from the realities of living in the prison capitol of the world, and so while Landrieu's argument never mentions race, it is much more likely to appeal to racially privileged white New Orleanians.

The Landrieu administration's disregard for the residents incarcerated at OPP is evident in the fact that for years they haven't done anything to improve the conditions at the jail while continuing to fund it. In his testimony at District Court, Deputy Mayor Andy Kopplin admitted that the Landrieu administration was well aware of the problems going on at the jail. Now that the Justice Department is insisting that the city share responsibility with the sheriff for the unconstitutional conditions there, Mayor Landrieu would like us to believe that his hands have been tied since he has no control over Gusman or OPP. But the Landrieu administration has dragged its feet on changing the funding of the jail from a per diem structure that incentivizes filling beds at the jail to one that would increase transparency and accountability. When Laura Coon of the Department of Justice asked Kopplin if the city had done anything to increase the city's oversight over the jail, for example, ordering a forensic audit,  Kopplin admitted that although this was something within the city's power, they hadn't ever looked into it.

As a New Orleans resident, I care about NORD summer camps, EMS and fire response times, etc. I don't want the bulk of the city's budget to be spent on stopping, frisking, arresting and caging people, and I support efforts to reallocate funds from incarceration and detention to building the infrastructure of a caring community. I also don't want my fellow New Orleans residents locked up in service of profit and political patronage, and I don't want the conditions they are held in to put their lives and their mental well being at risk. Pitting these things against each other is a false choice. For several years now, community groups like the Orleans Parish Prison Reform Coalition (of which I am a member) and the Micah Project have been calling for a change in the funding system for the jail and for a 1,438 cap on beds at OPP as a way to reduce overincarceration in the city. Locking fewer people up will also allow funds to be diverted to recreational, educational, mental and physical healthcare, affordable housing and transportation, accessible information, and jobs and job training. It is time for the mayor to take a strong, unwavering stand in support of these changes and work to make New Orleans a safe, sustainable, and thriving place to live for all of its residents.

Pam Nath is a member of Critical Resistance and Orleans Parish Prison Reform Coalition. She lives in New Orleans and works as a community organizer for Mennonite Central Committee.