Grassroots Organizations Propose Community-Based Oversight over Jail

By Mariama Eversley “The jail is still not in compliance. And the sheriff wants more buildings, more beds, but that is not the solution.” said Beverly Greer at a press conference the Orleans Parish Prison Reform Coalition (OPPRC) held in front of Federal Court last Wednesday in advance of the receivership hearing that may relieve Sheriff Marlin Gusman of his power. Greer spent three days trapped in Orleans Parish Prison (OPP) with no air conditioning, food, or water in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, “we need more community oversight so we can know what’s really happening inside” she said along with other families who testified about the poor and inhumane conditions in the jail citing preventable suicides and loved ones dying in restraints. From 2009 to the present, 29 people have died while in custody in OPP.

The OPPRC along with 9 other community organizations echoed these remarks in their amicus brief and petitioned the court to create an independent community based oversight board that could challenge ongoing violence and neglect plaguing the jail. Although Judge Africk already rejected the measure, the body would maintain the authority to, “subpoena and compel any and all testimony and any and all documents necessary to perform its responsibilities to participate in overseeing conditions of the jail.” Using the guiding principal that those closest to the problem are the closest to the solution, the board’s composition would be reflective of community members most impacted by incarceration.

Although community oversight boards of local jails are a rarity, its proponents say the criminal justice system in the world’s prison capital merits exceptional solutions. Norris Henderson Founder and Executive Director of Voice of the Ex-Offender says community oversight could address the wall of secrecy integral to prison culture, “I tell people all the time this about prisons: those fences are not to keep people in, they’re to keep people out”. Armed with official mechanisms Henderson believes oversight could improve the treatment of inmates, “It’s not like I’m going to come and run the jail for you,” he said explaining the board’s intentions, “it’s checks and balances so that when…the jail is saying ‘ain’t nothing going on wrong’ but the medical staff is saying ‘we’re stitching up people every day’ well, that’s because there’s no oversight. With community oversight, somebody would be in there every day, or two to three times a week fact finding.”

Cycles of Violence

While the sheriff’s lawyers claims the office needs more time to reach compliance, others say 2 ½ years is enough. Sister Rfuaw Diarra, a member of Families and Friends of Incarcerated Children (FFLIC), recounted at Wednesday’s press conference the medical neglect and isolation her son endured during his incarceration in the newly opened jail, “In the new jail, he was locked down for 20-22 hours a day. The food was still awful, and they didn’t feed him enough. When he said that he needed something for his asthma, or that his pump was empty, or he needed pain medicine for his gunshot wound, he would be ignored.” Despite the construction of the Orleans Justice Center, the sheriff’s department remains less than 10% compliant of the federal consent decree issued in 2013.

The persistent violence in New Orleans jails is not contained within its walls. Local advocates for criminal justice reform say many conflicts that end in bloodshed on the street begin inside the jail. Brother Don, a member of OPPRC and Executive Director of HOPE house says the experience of incarceration itself is a violent one and expressed the need for a community presence to counter feelings of desperation, “When you’re confined, told what you need to do, and punished for what you do wrong, you have very little control over your feelings and your emotions. The jail is going to be a violent place… the only way around it is to treat people different.” In a word, the state violence of jail makes a violent city. In the long run supporters of the community based oversight board envision a smaller, safer, and humane jail yielding a safer and more humane City of New Orleans.