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“You had him all the time!” ~Toni Bernette, HBO Treme

April 22, 2010

Last Sunday’s episode of Treme nailed so much about that time in this place that I couldn’t decide what to write this week. But I kept going back to LaDonna Williams’ search for her lost brother, who, she finds out, had been sighted on the overpass among Orleans Parish Prisoners.

It made me click on stories a friend of mine had told me when he was staying with us shortly after the summer of Gustav and Ike. I sat at the kitchen table listening to him, in his quiet way, tell me what had happened to him in that place. Now and then there would be a flash of anger, but mostly the story was told in even tones of resignation accompanied by shrugs. I will change his name to protect his identity, but the story he told me has haunted me.

Ike Hodgkins is a tall, gaunt, black skinned man with long natural dreads. He is a spiritual man but not naive. He is a musician, a dedicated spiritual seeker, well read. He knows a lot about Buddhism, Rastafarianism, other world religions and reggae music. He grew up in a huge family on St. Anthony Street, just two blocks from the Quarter. The house he grew up in is gone now. It burned down years ago, probably says he with no proof at all, for the insurance money once the old house passed from his family’s landlord to the landlord’s son. He has travelled extensively with various bands, has seen the world, and observed.

He was in OPP when Katrina hit. He’d been picked up, if memory serves, for a missed court date for an arrest involving a couple of joints in his possession.

Until today I had no real idea how enormous OPP is. Nor did I realize that it houses city, county, state and federal prisoners. Our trashed storage unit was one block down on Tulane, really just catty corner to OPP, but still, the size of the place hadn’t registered. When Katrina hit there were 6500-7000 prisoners in OPP, some of whom had yet to be charged with anything at all. Sheriff Marlin Guzman said we needed to keep “our prisoners where they belong,” and there was in fact, no plan for evacuation in an emergency. OPP was taking in prisoners from other parish jails. These poor bastards had been evacuated from their parish jail to OPP. What was Guzman thinking? Certainly not about the prisoners, and certainly not about his staff.

Until Ike told me, I didn’t realize that those incarcerated were sorted out: violent offenders on one tier, jaywalkers on another. I guess I figured everyone was sort of put in wherever there was room. He explained that most of the violent offenders had been on an upper tier. He was on a lower one. He told me about the staff just abandoning the place and the people in it, at least where he was. We poured hot sauce on our scrambled eggs and he told me about the power going out and the water rising. One of the guys with him had been locked up the night before the storm for failure to pay his child support, another for an unpaid traffic ticket. Ike told me about spending 12 hours standing on his toes to keep his head out of the water. A guy next to him noticed a shorter cousin and held his cousin on his shoulders for those 12 hours as he was tall enough to keep from drowning. Ike kept eating his eggs. I had put my fork down.

Eventually he was one of those ferried to the overpass. No water, no food, no information at all. Only sun. He said he noticed his skin was in bad shape from having been in the water with god knows what else polluting it. Eventually he wound up at Hunt in San Gabriel. There 3000 OPP inmates were put in a maximum security prison (remember, many had not yet been charged or were in for minor misdemeanors) in a field. At this point there was no more sorting. No more protection from the violent offenders. Everyone was dumped in the field. There was a young man who’d never been in jail before near Ike. The kid was panicking and falling apart. Ike got hold of him and calmed him down, explaining that he didn’t want to draw attention to himself or he’d be in danger. The young man listened and glued himself to Ike, shaking the entire time. He was shaking not only from fear, fear of the other prisoners and the extremely hostile inmates of San Gabriel, but also from dehydration. He remembers it taking a long time before the prisoners got food or water.

As for the authorities, they had no idea who any of these guys were. No records had accompanied them, not only because of their evacuation but also because most had been destroyed in the basement of OPP. So the authorities now had 7000 people in their custody and no earthly clue who any of them were. Were they violent rapists or a guy who mouthed off to a cop on Frenchmen Street? No idea. Families had no way of finding these prisoners and the prisoners had no way of knowing what had happened to their own families, much less a way to contact them when communications were completely useless at that time. Lots of people just got lost. The public defenders were gone, many just quit, already overloaded with casework before the storm ever hit.

The LaDonna Williams story line in which she is looking for her brother with the help of Toni Bernette, a lawyer rings absolutely true. (I was delighted to see Anwan Glover, who played Slim Charles on the Wire playing the guy they all thought was LaDonna’s brother.) I’m guessing that a lot of guys became someone else during that time. Bernette’s search through photos and printouts only to find LaDonna’s brother in the photos on the overpass, but not in the records, is probably a story that played out hundreds of times the same way. The already tenuous justice system of New Orleans was completely broken down.

I had heard Ike’s story. Today I looked into the reports from back then. Once again David Simon and his researchers and writing crew have it right. As viewers sit watching and wonder how such a mixup could happen, and complain that it might be a dramatic exaggeration of things, I’ll be remembering Ike’s story and pointing them to the links below.

This article, Down by Law, written in 2006 gives a great overview of what happened at OPP and why.

Regardless of your view of the ACLU, take a look here. Lots of links on that page.

And finally, I think Toni Bernette’s character may be based in part on a Defense Attorney named Phyllis Mann. This 2007 BBC Documentary, called Prisoners of Katrina, has Phyllis Mann’s description of what she was up against at about the 35 minute mark. There is also footage and descriptions of San Gabriel at about the 37 minute mark. It’s a tough documentary to watch. The inmates interviewed vary from a death row rapist to a murderer to a guy who hadn’t been charged in a drug possession arrest to a guy who never did find out what he had been arrested for.

I’m betting Simon and company have seen all this. I’ll be curious to see what happens in the “missing brother” storyline, cuz from what I can tell from the real stories, he could be anywhere.

  1. April 22, 2010 6:28 pm

    You freakin’ BET they have!

    Love, C.

  2. Tim permalink
    April 22, 2010 6:37 pm

    Great post. Even the people here are only dimly aware of the horrors the inmates dealth with. There were people locked up for months just for traffic tickets.

    I wished they’d shown OPP when Delmont (sp?) got busted. It’s a pretty horrible experience anytime, but after Katrina it was beyond atrocious. If you get arrested on a Friday and can’t bail yourself out during processing, they will hold you until trial on Monday morning (meaning you could lose your job, etc.).

  3. virgotex permalink*
    April 22, 2010 6:46 pm

    Thanks for the great post, and the extra links.

    I don’t even know what else to say. I remember seeing footage of all the prisoners on the overpass, and it was a lot of people, but obviously not as many as they were saying were in custody, and I was thinking, “Where are the rest of them?”

  4. April 22, 2010 6:59 pm

    Reading Dave Eggers’ “Zeitoun” makes it even clearer how much normal avenues of justice were suspended during the floods and long after the fact. The one story that sticks in my mind, among many, many others from that, is how the OPP used an Amtrak locomotive to power the makeshift jail 24/7, and how the constant noise of it ensured that prisoners got no sleep. The guards seemed to almost glory in this and in the fact that the fenced-in makeshift cells had no toilets in them. So why would they really care about where these people ended up? The prisoners were barely human to them in a city gone apocalyptic.

  5. wev permalink
    April 22, 2010 8:37 pm

    In clicking links that pepper this blog and reading everything, I have to pause often. This is as you warned, a difficult video to watch. One fact in all this material just sticks and begs for my attention. OPP is the eighth largest prison facility in the nation. Eighth largest.

    We are not even considered one of the 20 major advertising markets, last time I checked. Why are we not, every one of us, clamoring for change? This city/parish is a giant atrocity, is it not? No more illusions about isolated instances are supportable.

  6. April 22, 2010 8:46 pm

    Thank you thank you for this incredible post, the wonderful links, and for writing it so very, very well. It is a compelling story line, to be sure, but making the point that it’s not baseless fiction, but history is so so very important. It IS important to look back at these details, to study them and shine light in all those dark corners… because this situation will happen again. Somewhere, it will happen. And the only way we can make it better is by being better next time.

  7. adrastosno permalink
    April 22, 2010 11:09 pm

    Thanks for sharing that story, Sam. It was all too common in the chaos, confusion and ineptitude that followed the storm and flood.

  8. April 23, 2010 7:48 am

    I read some of the ACLU documents the other day and then D and I watched Children Of Men. No matter our illusions, we are always one or two small steps away from complete social breakdown and it’s the wild west, each one to himself.

    I’m lots more inclined to believe Ike than OPP’s charges of exaggeration because he sounds just like Abdulrahman Zeitoun, my dad and others I know who have been held in captivity. Many years later, their stories are heavy, matter-of-fact whispers and you are appalled at how calmly they can recite them. It’s their lack of tears that punches your gut the most. Imagine how they feel. Or don’t.

  9. April 23, 2010 3:31 pm

    Another horrific example of treatment of human beings by human beings that is mostly unknown. I hope “Treme” sheds some stark light on it.

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