“If it takes a village to raise a child, it certainly takes a movement to undo an occupation.”
– Ruth Wilson Gilmore
Since 2004, the Orleans Parish Prison Reform Coalition (OPPRC) — which includes Women With A Vision, Families and Friends of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children, Voice of the Experienced, and New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice — has been building a movement to reduce the parish’s jail population and improve conditions for those in detention. Over the years, the organization has won many victories, such as lowering the rate of incarceration as well as gaining the passage of a municipal bail reform ordinance — effectively eliminating bail and bond for most municipal offenses. During the pandemic, the coalition continues to advocate for the health and well being of the community. OPPRC has succeeded in gaining an en banc order in the Criminal District Court that has led to decarceration, and has helped establish Orleans Parish as one of the top-five districts in the country to have reduced jail population during Covid-19. To further understand the group’s organizing efforts throughout the pandemic, I spoke with Sade Dumas, the Executive director of OPPRC.
Well, let’s begin. I want to start off by asking you how you’ve been holding up during these times.
SD: During these times, although I’m seeing a lot of unrest and a lot of anxiousness from people around me, I’m feeling really hopeful. On one hand, we’re seeing our community come together like never before. We have a lot of mutual aid societies being birthed through this era. We have a lot of people taking their time and putting their bodies on the line to peacefully protest against state violence of police and mass incarceration.
Right now, I see the world working up, waking up. I see people fighting for the humanity and dignity of Black bodies. So I feel really encouraged right now.
So to get at the meat of it, has there been an official arrest protocol during COVID? And is the police department making an effort to reduce the number of arrests?
Unfortunately, we’ve seen a lot of problems from NOPD during this time. First, there was their unwillingness to even hear community groups when we said, stop arresting people for petty offenses. There were many people sent to jail who were fast-tracked out the next morning or that same day. And it shows that if they were just released that easily without paying any money bail, that they weren’t dangerous in the first place.
And I’m speaking of people who were arrested for a charge as simple as possession of marijuana. And this happened — they were taking people in this jail where there was already such a high rate of people who tested positive for coronavirus.
So NOPD has been very irresponsible at this time to put the lives of our community at risk. So the first problem is arrest. The second problem was the checkpoints NOPD created in April. And they were supposed to be informational checkpoints to give information about how to stay safe during COVID.
NOPD pulled over hundreds of people, and they themselves were not wearing PPE. And we also saw a situation where these checkpoints were located in neighborhoods occupied by Black and Brown people.
And the last big problem has been NOPD violently attacking peaceful demonstrators, and also not being truthful about the account of what happened, because there have been numerous videos revealing that demonstrators were, in fact, peaceful, and that the reports from NOPD were not accurate. So NOPD is being exposed for some of the harm that they’re still inflicting on our community, long after the start of a consent decree.
So how has OPPRC held the police accountable to prevent them from making unnecessary arrests in neighborhoods of color?
I think the first thing we were able to do, through collective efforts with community organizations and partners, was to end the use of informational checkpoints. So that was a really big thing.
This was a sneaky way for NOPD’s leadership to practice proactive policing. And proactive policing is known to disproportionately affect Black and Brown people. And I think we can even see that in the fact that 85% of the arrests during COVID-19 were of Black people — were of Black people for, again, things as simple as possession of marijuana.
Another thing is we still don’t have an arrest protocol updated for instance. And Mayor Cantrell has been in New Orleans for a while. NOPD answers directly to her. She has the power and authority to issue an arrest protocol to say, do not arrest for certain offenses during this era. She has been silent on this issue.
And Chief Ferguson has also not only been silent, but has been problematic with practicing proactive policing during a pandemic, which would lead to people unnecessarily being sent to a jail where COVID rates are high.
So OPPRC has been a facilitator of change, through getting more community members involved, educating them of the harm of this, teaching people how prison health is connected to public health, because everything that happens inside of a jail manifests itself on the outside.
If officers are arresting people unnecessarily and bringing them to a jail with COVID, those same people are gonna come back into our streets and interact with us in our grocery stores. And it’s just an inappropriate way to behave during the pandemic.
Can you tell me about how OPPRC was able to mobilize the community to rally against the police using tearing gas?
We were able to organize over 200 people to submit public comment for the city council meeting, really requesting our city council to hold the police department accountable and look into their practices during protests. We left that meeting with a resolution. We have promises from councilmembers, specifically from Jason Williams, the president of the city council and the chair of the Criminal Justice Committee, to review body camera footage and evidence around NOPD’s behavior in contrast with the reports.
And also, we have a statement from Councilmember Banks that he will work on a proposal to ban the use of teargas in the city of New Orleans. And that’s pretty big, because we know teargas is banned in, in wars, in international affairs. And in the United States, and in New Orleans, we’re using it on our own residents. So it’s pretty disappointing.
So how can the community get involved to urge the police to stop making arrests during the pandemic?
So there are so many community groups to get involved with. So many of us are working on this issue at this time. If there’s anything good that’s coming from this pandemic, it’s the fact that people have a moment to sit back, to read, to learn, and to choose how to become involved in this fight.
And our strategy is changing every day, because every day something new happens. Every day, we’re learning something that we have to respond to. So the best way to become involved is to be connected to a community group like OPPRC.
Like, if we want to be advocates, our first job is to take care of ourselves. Our second job is to educate ourselves. And our third job is to take action in helping the movement in whatever way is authentic to ourselves, and in a way that’s effective.
So what has been OPPRC’s role in reducing the jail population at the Orleans Justice Center (OJC) during the pandemic?
So we were able to organize and have judges pass an en banc order to release people detained on low-level municipal offenses. We were able to help push the demands of the public defenders.
So the en banc order was passed. It wasn’t as much as we wanted to be passed through that order. But judges were then open to reviewing their dockets, and open to seeing who could be set for a lower bond amount, who could be released on their own recognizance.
And also, I want to up list an unsung hero — the Safety and Freedom Fund. They bailed out over 100 people during the COVID-19 era. So New Orleans is in the top five for jail population reduction during COVID, with a 23% decline. This is the lowest population of the jail that many of us have seen in our lifetimes. And that was largely due to the work of Vera Institute of Justice, OPPRC, the Safety and Freedom Fund, and Orleans Public Defenders.
So everything happening is happening in partnership, through community, and through a multi-pronged approach at justice.
Do you think there will be an uptick in arrests once we get to stage two?
I think that’s something we’re fighting for right now, is for there to still be a change in arrest protocol. There are people being arrested for things that are so ridiculous that our tax dollars just shouldn’t go for. The cost that it takes to arrest someone, to send them to jail, for them to serve their sentence — all of these are tax dollars wasted. And a lot of people being criminalized right now are homeless people.
And just because we’re going into phase two doesn’t mean that people are safe to go in a jail. There are still people testing positive. I hear reports from mothers all the time with their sons in OPP, and their children are scared. And sometimes, those people are in there for something like substance use, uncontrolled substance use. So if someone has a substance abuse problem, then jail is not the right place. That person should be in a therapeutic setting to help them overcome the addiction instead of a place that would trigger them to run to it as soon as they’re released.
So does that en banc order mean that there’s going to be a further reduction in the jail population?
No, that reduction has already happened. We got down to about 800 people. Whereas the legal ordinance right now is a 1,250-person cap. So we’re way under that cap. And if I may, I would just plug in that our jail population is so low right now that it makes no sense for our sheriff to consider building another phase three jail building.
So does the current situation at the jail give you and you fellow organizers at OPPRC a renewed sense of purpose to prevent the construction of the phase three jail building? It doesn’t seem like the jail is capable of taking care of those with mental illness, not to mention it doesn’t really seem fiscally responsible at this time.
I just want to put on the record that OPPRC has been sayin for over a decade that this was a bad plan, to consider an additional jail building. We have said for a decade that the plans to build that jail were far too expensive. And I don’t think it should have taken COVID for people to realize how expensive it was to jail people, to build another jail to further criminalize people.
And an article by The Lens reported directly from the status filing in court that New Orleans would have to cut much needed social services. And this is a problem. We’ve been cutting social services and programs that actually lead to safety. We’ve been cutting education every year. And that doesn’t work.
So we need to try something different. We need to try divesting from the jail and investing in our community, for true safety.
Yeah. So when it comes to phase three, I think people are noticing, wow, this really is a bad jail. Jail really isn’t the place to stuff people, because it can lead to harm, like a massive outbreak of infectious disease.
Also, many people have quit the sheriff’s office. So they were already extremely understaffed. Now, the staffing situation is worse, because of people leaving and people dying during COVID. So we were already understaffed for one jail building. How will OPSO staff two jail buildings?
And yeah, the budget is a pretty big part. I think it’s time for our city leadership to reconsider what we’re going to invest in. And I highly doubt that incarceration should be the top of that list.
We’re gonna try and end on a positive note. Can you talk about a moment of joy during these times?
One great thing I’m seeing is the community pulling together. OPPRC launched a fundraiser for people who were recently released and people who are currently detained in the jail. And we launched a fundraiser for the Orleans Public Defenders Welfare Fund. And today, we’ve raised $20,000 to go directly in the pockets of people who are directly impacted by this system. And so that’s been a really great highlight at this moment.
But I think that for me, the biggest thing has been seeing community members become involved in — what would I call this process? — the democractic process of submitting public comments to the city council in less than 10 hours in response to the attacks on peaceful protesters. I think we’re proving that community members do care. No matter what situation we’re currently in, there are people who care.
And now, we can open this up to say, look how many public comments happened now, when people were able to submit it online. We need to think about how to make things more accessible in the future for those who are not fortunate enough to drive to city council, to bike to city council, to afford child care.
So overall, my heart is just moved by community. And the thing that has been giving me personal joy has been my volunteer work with the New Orleans Mutual Aid Society, a 100% volunteer-operated, volunteer-funded mutual aid society that delivers meals to over 200 families each week. So that’s just been a happy space for me. And I hope that others are able to find their happy space in the midst of the pandemic.
This interview first appeared in Big Easy magazine.