It has been a scandal festering for a year now. Thousands of people being held in the Orleans Parish Prison and other facilities when Hurricana Katrina hit a year ago today are still behind bars. They have never seen a judge or had a hearing. They just sit. While the rest of the local criminal justice apparatus is up and running, the courts remain a mess and most of the public defenders are gone. Last week USA Today ran a story about New Orleans Judge Arthur Hunter, a fed-up jurist who was threatening to start setting those prisoners free starting Tuesday. No news yet on whether that occurred--I'll post back later today with a preliminary report. I have been speaking with people in New Orleans about this for a few weeks, including Samantha Hope, a Louisiana harm reductionist who has been in the trenches in New Orleans since well before Katrina. This Friday's Chronicle will quote her extensively, but I thought I'd post a little preview of what I've learned. One thing I've learned that getting out of jail in New Orleans is like jumping out of the frying pan into the fire. "These folks coming out of OPP now are really in dire straits," Hope told me. "You've been held for over a year for smoking a joint, and when you get out, everything you know has vanished. The people are gone, the neighborhood is gone, it's all gone." I'm also going to follow-up with Human Rights Watch, which reported just after the hurricane that jail inmates appeared to have been literally abandoned as the waters rose, and hundreds were missing. The ACLU has done a similar report, and I'll be talking to them, too, as well as people involved in the public defender system. But right now New Orleans doesn't feel too responsive; the defenders are way overworked and understaffed, the sheriff's department won't return my calls, and so it goes. But stay tuned, there will be an update later today and a feature article on Friday.
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