Louisiana has the highest rate of citizen incarceration in the world--and that was before Hurricane Katrina struck. If it were an independent country, it would rank first in the world with an incarceration rate greater than 1 in 100 people. It is next to impossible to imagine the lives of prisoners in a system that barely has enough money to keep together the bricks and mortar, let alone keep individuals safely confined. The storm that swept through this city thirty months ago disrupted the lives of thousands, perhaps millions of people and those unfortunate enough to be in prison, were some of the least prepared or protected of all.
Perhaps more challenging to fathom than the individuals who suffered through the abuse of an uncaring, perhaps menacing, system is the experience of those who were brought into the system through no fault of their own and still suffered in the storm. The innocent, the wrongly accused and convicted, bring some of the most compelling stories from a broken and distrusted criminal justice system.
On Sunday, shortly after arriving in New Orleans, I was lucky enough to attend a presentation by Restoration After Exoneration--a group that advocates for the rights of individuals wrongly convicted and then exonerated of their crimes. Four men told their stories, from their unlawful arrest, through botched and truly criminal prosecution, to the years they spent on death row, awaiting an end they knew could not come. One man had spent more than half his life in jail for a crime he had no knowledge of; accused of killing a man with a co-defendant whom he had never met. Each of the stories was a powerful journey through the flaws of a system that favors punishment far more than presumed innocence. Perhaps the clearest message out of the ensuing discussion was that the woeful underfunding and overworking of the public defenders in Louisiana and across the country does not merely lead to new trials due to ineffective assistance of counsel, but can truly permit the state prosecution to run rough-shod over the lives of truly innocent people. While the system here is slowly improving, when a state locks up one in every 100 people and has already found 25 men on death row innocent, perhaps change through better lawyering is not the true answer. The overt racism in the system and the misconduct by corrupt political prosecutors paved the way for a broken system to rob poor, mostly black men of year of their freedom. This is not how justice should be done.
Among the most astonishing facets of this all-too-common injustice is what these men face when they finally escape the labyrinth of legal hurdles confronting a claim of actual innocence. How do you explain to a prospective employer that you've spent the past 7 years on Death Row? Who will really listen to you as you show articles detailing the system-wide breakdown that led to your years behind bars? More cruel, still, is the fact that these men, exonerated of their convictions, cannot qualify for job training programs for ex-convicts. They are truly left in the lurch with no one to respond to their plight. While perhaps the bars of the prison are gone, it becomes a short trip to the equally confining existence of abject poverty. Even after exoneration, the state offers no apology, nor any financial support, nor is there even real closure to the case. Beyond the crime of jailing the innocent, few of us consider the harm done to the public at large when the prosecution ignores proof of innocence. Not only does an innocent individual go to jail, but the true criminal is suddenly all the more free to continue perpetrating crimes--and we, as the public, are wooed into a false sense of security.
As with so much in this city, the most amazing part of the presentation on Sunday was not the tragedy that had befallen these men, but the spirit of survival and triumph that they and the other exonerees in the audience personified. After surviving years on death row, staring down the most awesome power of the State, these men continue to inspire as they work to provide for their families, give hope to their communities and to struggle to improve the prospects others like them. They were an inspiration to continue to work for true justice in a system bent on providing results, regardless of the truth.
For more information about these amazing individuals, look at the inspiring work of the Innocence Project, New Orleans.