Grief and Rage: Families and Friends of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children

Subhash Kateel
Date Published: 
February 28, 2006

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Grief and Rage: Families and Friends of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children





YOU can tell a lot about a place from how it treats its hurricane victims>,especially when they are prisoners.

As New Orleans was being swallowed by water and drowned by inaction, corrections officers at Orleans Parish Prison (OPP) left inmates locked in their cells to die with no food or water. As described in a report from Human Rights Watch, corrections officers in Opp's Templeman III compound had all fled the prison as early as August 29. The compound's 600 inmates, including some who were locked in ground-floor cells, were not evacuated until Thursday, September 1, three days after flood waters in the jail had reached their chests.

Many were not "evacuated" at all but had to break out of prison on their own, sometimes setting shirts on fire to get attention. Prisoners reported seeing their fellow inmates' dead bodies floating in water that had now been diluted with feces from the overflowing sewage system.

Although the prisoners were finally evacuated - with at least 300 unaccounted for - the nightmare continued. Some prisoners were transferred from New Orleans into facilities in smaller parishes nearby, the parishes that make Louisiana a Red State. Most of the prisoners had no idea where their families were, whether their loved ones were alive or dead, or how to contact them.

The officers at Jena Prison in Jefferson Parish didn't seem to notice that their new residents were refugees, so they treated them like prisoners of war,including cutting their new guests' access to the phone and forcing them to lie face down on the floor for hours at a time. When some prisoners protested, insisting that they needed phone access to find their families, they were met with pepper spray, batons, and work boots. Prisoners reported being called "nigger" as Jena officers made them lick their own blood off the floor and lie face down in vomit. Of the 23 prisoners that spoke to Human Rights Watch investigators, only one reported not being assaulted. Others begged the investigators not to leave because they were afraid of repercussions.


When asked for his impression on what happened to prisoners in New Orleans after Katrina, Malik Ndaula, a former immigrant detainee in Louisiana's Concordia Parish Prison and now an organizer with Keeping Hope Alive in Boston, exclaimed with bewilderment, "Before Hurricane Katrina you would have these racist-ass KKK corrections officers that would beat you up, stun gun you, and tell you in your face as they were beating you that they hated niggers! I filed my own lawsuits in jail against these guys before Katrina, and now people are acting like it is something new?"

And indeed nothing is new. If anything, the state, local and federal government responded to the people of New Orleans after Katrina the way they knew best: by criminalizing and incarcerating them. Despite his heartfelt pleas on the radio, New Orleans Mayor Nagin stopped the relief effort at the height of the disaster, to "restore law and order." In the post-Katrina recovery period, refugees with criminal convictions were even denied emergency aid. The problem was so pervasive that Representative Robert C. Scott had to propose legislation removing the barriers just so people could access some help.

Nothing new

States in the deep south have always used the criminal justice system as a way to keep Black folks in their place, especially when they found out it was a convenient tool to disenfranchise people th'at had just won their right to vote. White rural communities discovered the criminal justice system as a savior for their dying towns, while some economists and demographers found it a creative way to hide massive unemployment rates.

Louisiana, with its beautiful history and unique culture, is no different. As Xochitl Bervera, an organizer with Families and Friends of Louisiana's Incarnated Children (FFLIC) puts it, "Louisiana has the highest incarceration rate in the country. If it was its own country, it would have the highest incarceration rate in the world:'

I came to know about Louisiana's love for locking people up when I flew down to visit immigrant detainees with members of my organization, New York-based Families For Freedom. One of the country's largest immigrant detention centers is located in Oakdale, Louisiana, a small
economically depressed town four hours from New Orleans. Many immigrant
detainees from New York were housed in Oakdale and smaller Parish Prisons, such as Calcasieu and Concordia Parish Prison.

In March 2004, our organization received a letter documenting the abuse of several immigrant detainees by jail officials wanting to show a group of detainees who defiantly fought for better conditions that "there was a new sheriff in town:' Concordia's correctional officers proceeded to kick, spit on, and taser detainees, eventually locking them into solitary confinement. One detainee decided to defend himself and paid dearly for it. Another detainee, from New York by way of Jamaica, walks with a cane to this day.

Youth jails

Perhaps nothing in Louisiana's prison system caught the world's attention more than its youth jails. Tallulah Youth Prison was a sprawling eyesore that was known to ruin the life of virtually every young person that stepped foot in it. The tales of abuse - physical, verbal, and sexual - were disturbingly vivid.
Tallulah was a prison born to be bad; within weeks of it opening in 1994, a
federal judge declared a state of emergency at the prison. Human Rights Watch
stated that Tallulah, as well as every other Louisiana youth jail, violated
most basic international standards of Human Rights. Even the Justice Department declared the prison "life threatening and dangerous:'

If racism and a corrupt prison system are nothing new in Louisiana, neither is the fighting spirit of its people, especially its prisoners. I learned half of what I know about fighting for detention conditions from the detainees at Concordia Parish Prison. I learned even more about tearing down prison walls from the people of FFLIC.

Families and Friends of Louisiana's Incarcerated Children got its start in 2001, as a group of families with loved ones in Louisiana's youth jails, especially Tallulah Youth Prison. The organization eventually set its sights on its closure, or as they would call it, "the death of Tallulah:' Over the next 2-3 years, FFLIC worked with advocates, lawyers, and other organizers to form a formidable coalition, attacking Tallulah Youth Prison in the state legislature, in the courts, in the media, on the streets, and in the jail itself. The message was steadfast;
Tallulah Prison should die, and in its place new life should be born in the
form of a community college and community reinvestment.

FFLIC won and won big. The state legislature passed the Juvenile Justice Reform Act,and led the way for the closing of Tallulah, proving that a humble, yet powerful group of families with the right set of allies could conquer a culture that saw the fate of their children as being behind bars.

FFLIC's follow-up work was supposed to focus on making sure the prison would be turned into a community college and real community alternatives would be created. But Katrina would change all of that.

People's tribunal

In the post-Katrina period FFLIC, an organization that had no history in disaster relief, very little funding, a small staff, and no FEMA grants, decided to go out and initiate their own hurricane response. Their primary focus was first to find every family member of FFLIC, incarcerated or not, and ensure their immediate needs were being addressed. Their second goal was to expose to the world what is happening in New Orleans, especially with prisoners. FFLIC enlisted the help of organizations such as Critical Resistance and Atlanta's Communities United to go from shelter to shelter across the country and provide information to people who had loved ones locked up in New Orleans when Katrina hit. This effolt took them to Arizona, California, Texas, Georgia, and Arkansas, documenting information along the way.

FFLIC is now working with other organizations and coalitions, such as the People's Hurricane Fund to make sure the rebuilding process does not mean rebuilding the corrupt and brutal criminal justice system New Orleans and Louisiana made famous before Katrina. But first the community and the world has to come to terms with what happened after Katrina.

Using the idea of a Truth Commission or People's TIibunal, FFLI C hopes to use the evidence it gathers from evacuees around the country to organize an evidentiary hearing on the injustices and atrocities committed in post-Katrina New Orleans.
The evidence from tlie Truth Commission would ultimately be used in international courts, but it would also be used to push the government to do its job and initiate an independent investigation.

All of FFLIC's work takes place with pain, suffering, coping and rage in the background. As FFLIC members explained in a heartfelt message to their friends around the country, "Grieving and rage seem to be part of all of our daily realities as we try to fully comprehend what has happened and vision where we will go now that all has changed. Grief is both for our members and allies whose lives were lost, and for all of us whose homes are gone, whose lives as we knew them will never be the same."

The same way that pain and suffering made way for the walls of Tallulah to crumble like Jericho, the pain and suffering, if harnessed, can make way for a better New Orleans. With all the awful things the criminal justice system projects on prisoners and their families, wouldn't it be something to say that it was prisoners and their families that helped save the soul of New Orleans? •

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Subhash Kateel is an
Organizer with Families For Freedom, a Brooklyn, NY-based multi-ethnic network
of immigrants directlyfacing andfighting deportation.

For more info on FFLIC visit For more info on Katrina related Prison issues visit: