The crime and safety statistics of New Orleans, the most incarcerated city in America, is practically unremarkable. While still having one of the higher crime rates among 100 cities, and a bloated murder rate, it does not make anyone’s “Top 10 Most Dangerous Cities” listings. Despite this, the answer to nearly every social or public health problem is a cage, tasking the likes of our District Attorney, Sheriff, judges and public defenders with solving addiction, homelessness, mental illness, lack of education, and unemployment. It is no mystery why these solutions systemically elude us.
Prior to the Civil War, there was no need for convict labor for large public projects such as the levee system. There was also no need to disenfranchise massive numbers of people when elections came down to contests between wealthy white men. The slave system maintained the status quo for as long as historically possible. Too long, of course. And where power is threatened, the powerful will generally take action to assure threats are eliminated.
In 1868, Louisiana expanded the class of convicted people who were denied voting rights. It went from the white men who were convicted of forgery, bribery, and perjury to barring all men (Black or white) who were “under order of imprisonment.” Meanwhile, the labor force continued nearly uninterrupted because the 13th Amendment allowed slavery to continue as long as people were convicted of crimes. As one plantation owner famously remarked, “before we used to own them. Now we just rent them.”
The equation is simple:
Conviction + Disenfranchisement = Hard Labor – Political Power to Change.
This arrangement went largely untouched for 150 years. Along the way, Louisiana became the most notoriously creative in ways to suppress Black voting while also building up the disproportionately largest gulag in the world. Poll Tax, Grandfather Clause, Understandings Clause, and outright murder were some of the most well known tactics to maintain power, but people should recognize that Louisiana is one of only two states that allow a non-unanimous jury for convictions.
The Fear of a Modern Slave Rebellion
When Albert Woodfox, Herman Wallace, and Robert King were organizing in the early 1970s to ease the oppression of legally enslaved people at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, when they were organizing under the most logical banner of the Black Panthers, their demise was practically assured by history. Surprisingly, they were not outright murdered and joined a long lineage of activists that did not begin with Dr. King, Malcolm X, or Fred Hampton. And just as surprisingly, they survived the initial backlash to a wrongful accusation of killing a prison guard, unlike Emmit Till, Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown, Eric Garner, or Tamir Rice (none of whom were accused of killing a law enforcement officer). Miraculously, they overcame horrid conditions of oppressive incarceration, unlike Sandra Bland, Freddie Gray, and Gynnya McMillen- none of whom, mysteriously, even made it past the police station. It is amazing that they were not gunned down in the prison yard like George Jackson, a Black Panther incarcerated in California, that led to the 1971 Attica Prison Riot in New York.
Every part of the Angola 3 achieving delayed justice, and release, defies gravity in America- especially in Louisiana. The release of Albert Woodfox, following King and Wallace, is a testament to their bond of purpose, their will to persevere, and the growing public intolerance of injustice.
The Right to Defend Against Government Accusations
One can look back at the early 1970’s and reasonably conclude that Woodfox, Wallace, and King never had a chance. What we need to know, however, is would they have a chance today? Woodfox had a second trial, a second one where the state acted so unfairly it was also thrown out by reviewing courts. Today politicians use a budget crisis as a reason to underfund the constitutionally mandated right to counsel, and yet the government is not using that same crisis to close down prison and jail cells.
Those wondering why the ACLU is suing the Orleans Public Defender and the state body that funds the public defenders need to realize it is actually a person denied counsel who is suing. Such a person is the only one with a right to sue, as the right attaches to the person accused of a crime. As it happens, this plaintiff’s claim impacts us all. Will we get a lawyer? Will the 300 people, whose childhood sentences of Life Without Parole were recently thrown out, get lawyers? Would Woodfox have gotten a proper team appointed for a third trial? One way to keep the equation going is to overwork the defense side and continue the conviction system as originally designed. But it is not all static, of course. Slave labor may not be the needed outcome of the equation anymore, as it has some new variables:
(Accusation – Funded Defense Team) +
(Vigorous Police Investigation x Political Ambitious District Attorneys)
Prison Employment +
Contracts for Services (Medical, Food, Telecommunications, Sanitation, Transportation)
+ Incarcerated People Who Are Not “Unemployed”
The public defender has no “right to defend,” thus a demand made upon them, to be passed along to the state budget crunchers, must come from the people with constitutional rights: defendants. While Louisiana struggles with a budget crisis, they can think about the multiple millions of dollars spent trying to maintain the wrongful convictions of the Angola 3 (and many others), and the cellblocks dedicated to wrongful convictions, think of the children sentenced to die in prison, along with Orleans District Attorney Leon Cannizaro and Jefferson Sheriff Newell Normand’s recent comments: about how easing marijuana possession enforcement will basically send New Orleans into a murderous crime spree. Rather than tie marijuana to Doritos, as most Americans do, these out-of-touch elected leaders tie this drug (legalized in several states) to guns.
Marijuana is a “gateway drug,” but not to some realm of intoxicated violence and the bloody business of unregulated commerce. It is a gateway drug to the criminal justice system, where someone gets a “strike” or probation status that forever erodes future constitutional rights.
Peeling Back 150 Years of Construction
Taking a public health approach to the problems our criminal justice system has helped create and exacerbate will not happen overnight. It will come through changes both modest and bold. We need a combination of increased rights, services provided, inspiration, and reducing the punishments. In some cases, punishment needs to be outright eliminated.
Louisiana, Minnesota, and Florida are currently moving towards a citizenship dilemma that will never go away until resolved: When will people living in our communities, on probation or parole, have voting rights- the most basic element of citizenship and democracy. Until this mass of people (over 70,000 in Louisiana) have this tenet of citizenship we will always feel excluded, and be excluded. This exclusion extends to our children, into our friendships, and impacts our workplaces.
Maryland’s legislature recently voted to override their governor’s veto, restoring citizenship to all people who are outside of prison and living in the community. Kentucky, however, has restored then reversed voting rights by executive orders; proving the tenuous nature some view this fundamental cornerstone of democracy.
Those who oppose voting rights don’t believe in democracy.
They are simply un-American.
While very fundamental questions linger about allowing people back into the community from where we come, some make moves on reducing punishments. It is not possible for the 80 million convicted Americans to undergo the brutality, including decades in torturous solitary confinement, suffered by the Angola 3. The taxpayers cannot afford it, the communities cannot absorb it, and the individual families cannot survive it.
President Obama recently eliminated solitary confinement for children in federal custody. Acknowledging that sensory deprivation amounts to torture is a significant moment in mainstream political history, and hopefully our leaders will soon recognize that torture should not be tolerable on our adults. Hopefully state leaders will follow federal leaders, who should be incentivizing such reductions in brutality in the same way federal dollars contributed to the massive spending boom required to build mass incarceration as we know it.
The federal government is close to passing a sentencing reform act that would apply to their federal prisoners. It is important for people to understand that such federal initiatives DO NOT apply to people in state custody, as each state has its own set of independent state laws that are only limited by the U.S. Supreme Court’s interpretation of “cruel and unusual punishment” and protected rights of defendants.
Those who wonder what each of the latest federal bills “will do,” they should be asking the interpretations by impacted people- those who have a stake in the actual success of the litigation beyond claiming victory in its passage. As one would expect, federal legislation often doesn’t begin by asking for too much and typically gets watered down further in the process. If a bill has a modest, but genuine, impact it should be embraced as such rather than over-hyped in a manner that leads people to wash their hands and proclaim a job “well done.”
The federal Fair Sentencing Act will immediately impact some people, and represent a downward trend in sentencing laws, but will not go much further in producing lasting reductions in mass incarceration. Reducing the mandatory minimum on 1kg of heroin / 5kg of cocaine / 280g crack / 50g meth (from ten years to five) will only help the few people who may be serving under ten years for such a major amount of hard drugs. Similarly, the reduction on 100g of heroin / 500g of cocaine / 28g of crack / 100 marijuana plants / 5g of meth (five years minimum to two) will only help those few people where the judge would have given them less.
Doing What You Can, Where You Can
As VOTE’s executive director Norris Henderson always says, “Get in where you fit in.” Some will work on citizenship while others on sentencing. Some gravitate to addiction services and others need to build homes, but ultimately we need to be building our community in ways that involves us all, that puts us all in it to win it, collectively ensuring injustice does not occur.
Welcome home Albert Woodfox.
May you live a long and peaceful life full of all the things you hold dear.
Rest in power, Herman Wallace.
May your spirit guide us along the arc of humanity, the one that bends towards justice.
Keep fighting for justice, Robert King.
May you grow ever stronger through vindication.