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Feature: Living on Katrina Time -- Lost in Louisiana's Gumbo Gulag

New Orleans resident Pearl Bland was arrested and jailed on drug paraphernalia charges in August 2005, just weeks before Hurricane Katrina devastated the city. She pleaded guilty on August 11, and her judge ordered her released the next day for placement in a drug rehabilitation program. Recognizing Bland was indigent, he waived the fines and fees. But Bland was not released the next day. The Orleans Parish Prison (OPP) instead held her because she owed $398 in fines and fees from an earlier arrest. She had one more court hearing in August and a September 20 status hearing was set where in all probability the fines and fees would have been waived.

Pearl Bland never got her September hearing. Instead, once Katrina hit, she joined thousands of prisoners stuck in purgatory. After suffering beatings from her fellow inmates in the OPP as deputies shrugged their shoulders, Bland was evacuated, first to the maximum security state prison at Angola and eventually to a jail in Avoyelles Parish. In June, she desperately contacted the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which in turn contacted attorneys with the Tulane University Criminal Law Clinic, who managed to win her release on June 28. Bland wasn’t there for her release hearing, just as she hadn’t been present at four previous hearings in the preceding weeks, because her jailers couldn’t be bothered to deliver her to court.

"Pearl Bland spent 10 months in prisons around the state because of $398 in fines and fees that her judge would most likely have waived if she had ever gotten to court," said Tom Javits, an attorney with the ACLU's National Prison Project. "But because of the storm and the the response to it, she didn’t get her day in court for months, and then only because she sought out help," he told the Drug War Chronicle.

https://stopthedrugwar.org/files/aclureport.jpg
ACLU report
It would be bad enough if Pearl Bland were a fluke, but sadly, her case is typical of what happened to people unfortunate enough to be behind bars when Katrina hit or to be arrested in the storm's aftermath. As the ACLU National Prison Project and the ACLU of Louisiana documented in their early August report, "Abandoned and Abused: Orleans Parish Prisoners in the Wake of Katrina," thousands of New Orleanians in custody when the storm hit were left on their own as guards fled the rising waters. Since then, those prisoners have been scattered to the winds, left without counsel, abused by guards, and left to rot by a justice system that is seemingly content to forget all about them. And with post-Katrina reconstruction bearing a very heavy law enforcement imprint, they have been joined by thousands more, many of them imprisoned for trivial crimes like spitting on the sidewalk, public drunkenness and simple drug possession.

A year after Katrina, thousands of prisoners have never seen an attorney, never been arraigned, never appeared before a judge. Scandalously, no one has a firm count -- or if they do, they're not telling. "Nobody knows the numbers," said law professor Pamela Metzger, who heads the Tulane Law School Criminal Law Clinic and whose students have been going into Louisiana jails and prisons in search of the Katrina prisoners. "When we ask the district attorney's office to assist us with this, just so people can get lawyers, they say it's not their job. Just since June, my students have been able to track down and get released about 95 people," said Metzger. "But we just have no one of knowing how many are in jail."

When the Chronicle asked ACLU of Louisiana executive director Joe Cook the same question, he had a similar answer. "I don't know what the number is. Ask the district attorney," he said.

The New Orleans district attorney's office did not return repeated calls seeking information on the number of people arrested before or after Katrina who have yet to see a lawyer or have a court hearing. Similarly, and perhaps indicative of the state of affairs at the public defenders office, no one there even answered the phone despite repeated calls. (That's not quite true. On one occasion, a woman answered, but she said she was an accountant and no one else was in the office.)

Published estimates of the number of New Orleans prisoners denied their basic rights to counsel and speedy trial have ranged between 3,000 and 6,000.

Part of the problem is the nearly total collapse of the indigent defender system in the city. It was in terrible shape before the storm hit, and collapsed along with the rest of the criminal justice system in the storm's wake. But while authorities were quick to get law enforcement up and running, it took until June for the criminal courts to begin to operate, and the public defenders' office, which depends on revenue from fines to finance its operations, was running on fumes. Now, nearly three-quarters of the public defenders have simply left even though they are needed to represent about 85% of all criminal defendants in the city.

The situation aroused the attention of the US Department of Justice, which in a report released in April concluded that: "People wait in jail with no charges, and trials cannot take place; even defendants who wish to plead guilty must have counsel for a judge to accept the plea. Without indigent defense lawyers, New Orleans today lacks a true adversarial process, the process to ensure that even the poorest arrested person will get a fair deal, that the government cannot simply lock suspects [up] and forget about them... For the vast majority of arrested individuals," the study found, "justice is simply unavailable."

The situation is also beginning to grate on the nerves of New Orleans judges. In May, Chief Judge of the Criminal District Court Calvin Johnson issued an order requiring everyone charged with traffic or municipal offenses to be cited instead of jailed. The city has "a limited number of jail spaces, and we can’t fill them with people charged with minor offenses such as disturbing the peace, trespassing or spitting on the sidewalk... I’m not exaggerating: There were people in jail for spitting on the sidewalk," he complained.

Last week, another New Orleans criminal court judge, Arthur Hunter, made the news when he threatened to begin holding hearings this week to release some of the prisoners held for months without attorneys or court hearings. That was supposed to happen Tuesday, but it didn't. Instead, Judge Hunter postponed the hearing after prosecutors raised concerns.

While disruptions in the system were inevitable in the wake of Katrina, Tulane's Metzger laid part of the blame on the district attorney's office. "They have made some poor resourcing choices and they are hampered by a sort of knee-jerk response that everything has to be prosecuted to the fullest extent. They are not really looking to clear cases; instead they let people sit without lawyers until they're willing to plead guilty," she said. "It's a form of prosecutorial extortion."

It is not just people who were in jail when Katrina hit, but many of those arrested since who have vanished into the gumbo gulag, said Metzger. "Last week we found a man who had been jailed at the Angola maximum security prison since January. He was picked up for drug possession, his only prior was for marijuana, and he's been sitting in one of the meanest prisons in the country without even seeing a lawyer for eight months," she exclaimed. "We won an order for his release. He was supposed to get out Tuesday, but he's still in jail. We just don’t know how many more there are like him."

The district attorney's office is not only uncooperative, it is downright obstinate, Metzger complained. "We filed a right to speedy trial claim on behalf of a man named Gregory Lewis who had already served 10 months on a drug misdemeanor with a six-month maximum. The district attorney's office fought that, and their motion actually said, and I quote, 'It's not unreasonable to hold alleged drug addicts in jail longer than other people; it allows the deadly drugs to leave their system,'" she said.

The district attorney's office motion referred obliquely to detoxification, which is ironic given that there is now no such facility in New Orleans. "There is not a single detox bed in the whole city," said Samantha Hope of the Hope Network, a group that is seeking private funding to open a treatment and recovery center in the heart of the city. "Most folks in OPP right now are people who couldn’t get access to treatment for an alcohol or drug problem. That's the way it's been since day one," she told the Chronicle. "Rather than criminalize people with an alcohol or drug problem, we need to find a way to give them support. Confronting our money-eating corrections system, our good ol' boy network, and racism, that is hard to do."

The Tulane students have filed some speedy trial cases, but not everyone is fortunate enough to have a Tulane law student working his case so he can file a speedy trial claim. "In order to file a motion for a speedy trial, you have to have a lawyer, and thousands still do not have counsel,' explained ACLU of Louisiana's Cook. "The indigent defense system was broken long before Katrina hit, and now it is just a disaster," he told the Chronicle.

Drug war prisoners make up a significant but unknown number of those doing "Katrina time," said Cook. "It is definitely a significant proportion of them," he said, "but many of them have not even been formally charged. In New Orleans, as in most large urban areas, it's probably safe to say that a plurality of felony arrests are drug-related."

There are solutions, but they won't come easily. "We have to have a public defender's office that is funded with secure, predictable funding," Metzger recommended. "We have to get beyond relying on fines to fund that office. If we had had public defenders, there would have been someone watching to catch the abuses," she said.

"Second, we need to have prosecutors who understand their obligations to the community," Metzger continued. "Their job is not simply to get convictions but to do justice, and what that means will vary according to the individual facts and circumstances. What post-Katrina justice requires is not what justice required before Katrina. If you were living in New Orleans in the fall of 2005 and you weren’t drunk or high, there was probably something wrong with you. Everyone was medicated or self-medicating."

Cook had his own set of recommendations for a fix. "First, we turn up the heat. I just visited the DA this morning and asked him to speed up processing," he revealed. "We want to ensure there is a coordinated emergency evacuation plan for all the prisons and jails and we've asked the Justice Department's civil rights division to look at what happened at OPP and since. Part of that will be looking at why these people didn’t get defense counsel or have their day in court."

Turning up the heat is precisely what one recently formed community group is trying to do. And it's not just the prosecutors and public defender system it is targeting. "The police department has taken a new view of who belongs in the city now, and that view doesn’t include poor black people," said Ursula Price of Safe Streets, Strong Communities, a group organizing people who were in the jail or otherwise brutalized by police. Safe Streets, Strong Communities is running two campaigns, one to strengthen the indigent defender system and one about improving conditions at the jail itself. "They tell our members 'you shouldn’t have come back, we don't want your kind here,'" she told the Chronicle. "Race is an issue, economics is an issue, and our teenage boys are bearing the brunt of it. They are harassed all the time by the police."

It is a matter of choices, said Price. "We have as many cops as before the storm, and half as many people, and we just gave the cops a raise. The city finance department deliberately spends the vast majority of its money on public safety, and then there is nothing left for social services, which are deliberately being sacrificed," she said. "But I'm encouraged because the community is starting to take note. When people found out we were spending half a million dollars a week on the National Guard without it having any impact, they started to get mobilized."

Cook had a full list of needed reforms, ranging from downsizing the jail population by stopping the practice of using it to hold state and federal prisoners, to creating adequate programming for health care and treatment within the jail, to decreasing the number of people held as pretrial detainees. "We need pretrial diversion, bail reform, and cite and release policies to hold down the jail population," he argued. "There needs to be the political will to do this. It's a crime to jail a kid when there is a choice, and there are many other choices. And we ought to be treating drug abuse as a public health issue, not a law enforcement issue."

The prospects look gloomy. "It is going to take enlightened leadership, and I see only a glimmer of hope for that," said Cook. "But we are not giving up. The state juvenile justice system is finally undergoing reforms because of pressure from families and activists, and I think it will take the same sort of effort to fix things at the adult level and here in New Orleans, at the parish level. That is already happening here with the OPP Reform Coalition, the Safe Streets people, and all that."

But there is a long, long way to go in New Orleans.

Surge in Heroin Deaths Leads Families of Victims to Speak Out

Location: 
St. Louis, MO
United States
Publication/Source: 
KSDK News Channel 5
URL: 
http://www.ksdk.com/news/news_article.aspx?storyid=102639

Harvest Season Hijinks

Every year in August, we see a flurry of marijuana eradication stories in local papers, as police target outdoor plants ripening for the fall harvest. Nowhere is this phenomenon more visible than in California where the Campaign Against Marijuana Planting (CAMP) makes Federal dollars available to local police departments wishing to send their officers on a treasure hunt in the forest.

Local papers have become shameless cheerleaders for this annual ritual, seeking to amaze the public with sexy photos of heavily armed cops repelling into dangerous terrain from helicopters alongside boastful headlines touting seizures in the millions.

Of course, for all the fanfare, many people will notice that there’s no shortage of high-grade marijuana in California. So police use deception to keep the reporters and the public interested.

Here’s how they do it:

Deception #1: Claim a “record” number of seizures every year.

Setting records implies that progress is being made. Every article on outdoor eradication efforts includes a quote like this:

From the Daily Democrat in Woodland, CA:

"I expect this year to be another big year," said [Officer] Resendez. "If we continue on the same pace, we'll exceed the number of plants eradicated last year."

Police are basically competing with themselves here, so they can’t lose. If the numbers go down, they’ll say it’s because last year’s effort intimidated the growers.

Of course record seizures are meaningless if you don’t compare them to an estimate of the overall crop size. A 10% increase in eradication is a failure if the total crop has increased by 20%, but you never get that type of analysis.

There are other factors at play as well. From the Union Democrat in Tuolumne County, CA:

"The increase in plant count is because the gardens are bigger," said Tuolumne County Sheriff Lt. Dan Bressler. "The gardens are bigger because there was so much rain this past year. Streams are full and a lot of water runoff means they're better able to supply their gardens."

Out of a dozen articles on marijuana eradication in California I’ve skimmed this week, only this one mentioned increased rain. Every other article praised record seizures, allowing readers to infer that good police work was the sole factor. It’s a notable omission since rain, unlike police, will find every plant in the forest. If anything, we should be expecting an impressive crop come October.

Deception #2:Dramatically overestimate crop values.

Big numbers get headlines and police will say anything. Here’s a typical quote from KATU News in Oregon:

The plants were four to six feet tall, growing in scattered gardens on three acres of Bureau of Land Management property near Hyatt Lake. Plants of that size can produce about a pound of marijuana each - worth about five-thousand dollars on the street.

I emailed Chris Conrad, court-qualified cannabis expert, to see what he thinks about these numbers. Here’s what Conrad has to say:

After decades of proclaiming "a pound of bud per plant" as being the average harvest, the DEA and DoJ had the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) do an actual study at their experimental marijuana garden at the University of Mississippi. The result: A typical mature female cannabis plant growing outdoors puts out 4 ounces of bud, that is 25% of their claimed yield, and it can be calculated by taking the square foot of the canopy and multiplying it by 1/2 ounce per square foot of area covered by the plant's canopy. The result, published in Cannabis Yields, 1992, notes that "a survey" of police came to a pound per plant, and that is clarified that drug police "estimate" a pound of bud per plant, but it is clear that there is absolutely no data to back that up, it is a made up number used by police to exaggerate crop values.

According to Conrad, police tend to exaggerate crop values within a range of “anywhere from 4 to 1 to 400 to 1.” Of course, with newspapers reporting that you can make $5,000 per plant, it’s no wonder so many people are out in the woods planting the stuff.

Deception #3 Pretend that marijuana eradication is dangerous.

Articles about marijuana eradication always claim the work is hazardous, citing difficult terrain and armed criminals. Again from the Daily Democrat:

[Resendez] added that there are several hazards to law enforcement officials, including the rocky terrain and the suspects. "It's pretty dangerous," Resendez said. "You'll encounter a suspect and they'll be armed. Not so much to protect themselves from law enforcement but from criminals who are trying to steal their plants."

At least he admits that growers arm themselves to protect the crop from thieves and not police. Still, the perception that growers might attack officers has continually driven a militarized approach to eradication. In his book The Great Drug War, Professor Arnold S. Trebach describes how “sensational journalism” in the early 1980s fueled a widespread perception that marijuana growers were armed and dangerous. CAMP officers have been armed to the teeth ever since.

Deception #4: Blame the Mexicans.

Every article on outdoor marijuana growing in CA must have an obligatory reference to the Mexican gangs that are supposedly behind it all. We’ve come full-circle here, since racial animosity towards Mexicans was originally used as leverage in the first efforts to criminalize marijuana.

From the Crestline Courier-News in Lake Arrowhead, CA:

“Ninety-nine percent of the plants seized in the national forests,” [Special Agent] Stokes said, “were planted by members of the Mexican National Cartel which has a huge network throughout California and the west.”

99%!? It’s a convenient generalization, since most such articles note that the growers are rarely seen or apprehended. But I’ll bet if you’re a Mexican walking around a remote California forest in August, you’re a heck of a lot more likely to get questioned by the park police.

To the extent that Mexican gangs are getting involved in outdoor marijuana cultivation, it’s entirely due to prohibition. But it also reflects poorly on CAMP, which has dedicated 20 years to fighting marijuana in California’s forests, only to find that the business is still attracting new participants. If they exist, these gangs are the best evidence that CAMP has failed.

Regardless, I believe the role of Mexican crime syndicates has been dramatically overstated. Let’s face it, the upper half of California is crawling with white people that absolutely love planting pot in the woods. They’ve been there for decades.

For more on the history of CAMP, read Martin Targoff’s excellent book Can’t Find My Way Home. And if you’re ever accused of attempting to grow $50 million worth of marijuana, make sure your lawyer calls Chris Conrad to the stand.

Location: 
United States

Police to Start Ecstasy Tests (For Drivers) (Australia)

Location: 
VIC
Australia
Publication/Source: 
ABC News (Australia)
URL: 
http://www.abc.net.au/news/newsitems/200608/s1726318.htm

Don't Blame Medical Marijuana for State Park/Wildlife Harm from Illegal Grow-Ops

Earlier this month Mexico's El Universal paper reported on the <?php print l('drug trade harming Mexican environmental efforts', 'speakeasy/prohibition/posts/2006/aug/02/drug_trade_hurting_mexic', NULL, NULL, NULL, NULL, TRUE); ?>. An article in today's San Francisco Chronicle made the same lament about Bay Area marijuana growing in state parks. Henry Coe State Park supervising ranger Mike Ferry told the Chronicle:
"At these gardens, we've found dead animals and birds, ammonia sulfate, pesticides and herbicides, ponds and creeks lined with plastics, and garbage all over the place," he said. "The environmental damage is huge."
El Universal's article made the key point, that the Chronicle article and few articles in US media yet make:
If narcotics are decriminalized, then the black market might cave in, and along with it the smuggling relationships that undermine conservation efforts.
So it would. And that's what has to happen here too. There is nothing intrinsic to marijuana growing that it should have this kind of effect on our national parks -- if people were illegally growing broccoli or tomatoes in the parks for the mass commercial market they would undoubtedly create the same kind of pollution that is hurting the animals. The problem is prohibition. The solution is: legalization. Unfortunately, while Mr. Ferry certainly seems to care about the environment and to be working hard on its behalf, he also has some ideas about drug policy that don't seem well thought out:
One dilemma "that is really throwing us," Ferry said, is the wide-scale acceptance of medical marijuana and the perception that casual marijuana use hurts nothing. But if marijuana smokers saw the carcasses of deer, squirrels, songbirds, owls and other wildlife shot or poisoned at the illegal groves, as Ferry has, perhaps they would understand the price wildlife pays for their next toke.
Blaming it on medical marijuana?!?!?!?!? No. Never mind that federal surveys found no increase in marijuana use in states that passed medical marijuana initiatives. (Could someone send in a link for this? I am having trouble finding it. I think it was part of a Monitoring the Future study one year.) Tell the feds and their ideological allies in certain cities and counties to stop shutting down coops who are in a position to contract with responsible growers. Hmm, I didn't set out to pick two SF Chronicle stories two days in a row. Maybe that's good. Again, here is their letter to the editor information. And again, please send us copies of your letters through our <?php print l('contact form', 'contact', NULL, NULL, NULL, NULL, TRUE); ?> -- select the "Copies of Letter You've Sent" option -- or post a copy in the comments here below.
Location: 
CA
United States

First Annual Charity Dinner/Fundraiser for In Arms Reach: Parent Behind Bars: Children in Crisis

December 1, 6:30pm, New York, NY, First Annual Charity Dinner/Fundraiser for In Arms Reach: Parent Behind Bars: Children in Crisis, with former New York Giants linebacker Carl Banks. At the Great Hall of City College, call (212) 650-5894 for further information.
Date: 
Fri, 12/01/2006 - 6:30pm - 10:00pm
Location: 
New York, NY
United States

Methamphetamine: Third Murder Trial For Woman in California Meth Poisoning Infant Death Case

A California woman whose infant son died with methamphetamine in his system will face a third murder trial, a Riverside County Judge ruled Monday. Amy Leanne Prien was convicted of second-degree murder in her son's death in 2003, but that conviction was overturned by an appeals court citing flawed jury instructions. A retrial ended in a mistrial in June after jurors deadlocked 6-6.

After the mistrial, Prien's lawyers moved to dismiss the charge, but Judge Patrick Magers declined. "It is abundantly clear to the court that the cause of death of the victim was methamphetamine intoxication," he said from the bench as he rejected the motion.

What is not so clear is where the meth in the child's system came from. Prosecutors have argued that Prien, an admitted long-time meth user, caused her child's death by feeding him her breast milk when she was using the popular stimulant. They argued that Prien continued smoking meth while breast-feeding, a charge she has consistently denied. She has suggested that a male guest in her home may have provided the drug to the baby.

A major problem for the prosecution is that the bottle of milk found beside the dead baby was misplaced by law enforcement and never tested for the presence of methamphetamine. And while Prien was tested and came back positive for meth, police never tested her breast milk. Los Angeles attorney Joe Reichmann, who is representing Prien, argued futilely that the charge should be dropped because it was based on "make-believe science" since prosecutors had no way of knowing the meth levels in her breast milk.

California prosecutors have repeatedly proven unable to make meth mother murder cases stick, and it is unclear why they are pursuing Prien with such a vengeance. It's not like she got off scot-free. In addition to losing her child, she is currently serving a 10-year prison sentence for felony child endangerment in the same case.

Padua Builds Wall in Drugs Battle (Italy)

Location: 
Italy
Publication/Source: 
British Broadcasting Corporation
URL: 
http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/4782925.stm

Judge deals blow to claim that meth sting targeted South Asians

Location: 
Atlanta, GA
United States
Publication/Source: 
Associated Press
URL: 
http://www.macon.com/mld/macon/news/politics/15190586.htm

Smugglers Innovate as Border Tightens

Location: 
United States
Publication/Source: 
USA Today
URL: 
http://www.usatoday.com/printedition/news/20060803/a_borderdrugs03.art.htm

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