“Kids Eat Shit in New Orleans Jail”
Those words, or something akin to them, should have
been headlines. While Hurricane Katrina flooded New Orleans streets
and homes, the waters also rose in New Orleans jails, including
"It had feces and stuff floating
around in it, but some people drank it anyway because they were
The story of Hurricane Katrina is an epic one, a
foretelling of what is to come for the rest of the country. New
Orleans experienced in one fell swoop what the rest of the country
is experiencing over time. New Orleans was devastated very suddenly
by political corruption, global warming, cronyism, and racism.
The rest of the country is facing all of those calamities too,
only more slowly. Katrina presented a snap shot of America’s future.
Little attention is ever given to the incarcerated,
and the media told us nothing about the condition of New Orleans
jails after the neglected levees failed and the city flooded.
Recently we got an answer about the most vulnerable prisoners
of all, juveniles, minors. They are usually referred to as children.
The Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana issued a damning report,
Like Trash: Juvenile Detention in New Orleans Before, During
and After Katrina,” that documents how juveniles were left without
food, water and medical care for days.
America is in a mad race with itself to incarcerate
as many of its citizens as possible and children are not excluded.
The Department of Justice recently confirmed that America still
has the dubious distinction of keeping more of its citizens behind
bars than any other country on earth. The already awful statistics
worsened in 2004 and 2005 when an additional 1,000 inmates were
incarcerated every week. The numbers of Americans behind bars
increased by more than 2
percent in that one year period.
The enormous increase in the prison population
is a seldom debated subject. Most white people don’t care or are
in favor of putting and keeping more black people behind bars,
and most black people are too embarrassed to speak out.
There are a few who will stand up for the least
among us. In New Orleans, African American criminal court judge
Arthur Hunter, Jr. has begun the very sensible process of freeing
indigent prisoners. Most defendants rely on public defenders
for representation, but the public defender system in New Orleans
has no money and no attorneys to try cases. There are also not
enough court rooms, jurors to deliberate, or witnesses to testify.
Hunter’s courage is to be applauded in a city that should otherwise
be ashamed of the way it treated children behind bars.
The Orleans Parish Prison (OPP) became a hell hole
for juveniles. On August 28, 2005, authorities at two juvenile
detention centers, the Youth Studies Center (YSC) and the St.
Bernard Juvenile Detention Center, transferred their charges to
OPP and its Orwellian named Community Youth Center (CYC). None
of the 100 to 150 children transferred reported having any food
to eat between August 29th and their evacuations which took place
between three and
five days later.
Upon leaving OPP, all of the children
were forced to walk, swim, or be carried through heavily contaminated
floodwater. Because many of them spent long periods of time –
up to two nights and three days – waiting outside the facility
even after leaving their dorms and cellblocks, this meant sleeping
and traveling in clothes soiled with toxins.
Their abandonment was not unique among the many
tales of survival told in New Orleans. The world saw the American
government’s absence, incompetence, and meanness on full display
in the days after Katrina struck.
As in the rest of the country, juvenile detention
in New Orleans is made for black people. Before Katrina struck
the percentage of African American inmates at YSC was 95% and
98% at the CYC. The racial disparities in rates of incarceration
say it all. The worsening rates of incarceration in the U.S. are
tolerated, indeed encouraged because of the racist imperative
to keep black people under control.
A nation that leaves children shackled and struggling
as flood waters rise is not good, great, civilized, kind, generous,
or any other
positive adjective that is routinely used to describe the U.S.
The facts are damning, and contradict the image of benevolence
that the rest of the world knows to be a lie.
Black America historically acted as the nation’s
conscience, but is now terrified of stepping forward and speaking
up for the least among us. Self-hatred has now taken hold. That
self condemnation is now so strong that even when rates of imprisonment
are clearly unrelated to the crime rate the status quo isn’t questioned.
In some quarters it is even defended.
We have now been convinced that we should forget
about juvenile and adult inmates. They are an embarrassment. If
there is a black CEO who steals or a Secretary of State who kills
thousands we are supposed to feel proud. If kids have to eat shit,
well it is just too bad for them.
Margaret Kimberley's Freedom Rider column appears
weekly in BC. Ms. Kimberley is a freelance
writer living in New York City. She can be reached via e-Mail
at [email protected].
You can read more of Ms. Kimberley's writings at freedomrider.blogspot.com.