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Starve The Mass Incarceration Beast By Shutting The Front Door

To decarcerate New Orleans, we must defund the police department.

Photo illustration by Kat Wawrykow. Photo from Getty Images.

This piece is a commentary, part of The Appeal’s collection of opinion and analysis.

It’s a miracle that no one was killed on June 3 when the New Orleans Police Department deployed tear gas and rubber balls on peaceful protesters marching as part of the national movement for Black lives.  Members of the Orleans Parish Prison Reform Coalition (OPPRC) reported that the crowd was packed closely together on the Pontchartrain Expressway, an elevated highway in New Orleans, when police discharged gas. The sound of screams panicked the crowd, and people began to run. Only the collective chants of “Go slow!” and “Don’t run!” from the protesters prevented community members from being trampled. People near the expressway’s edge feared being pushed over the guard rails to their almost certain deaths on roadways far below.  

After this unwarranted attack, Police Chief Shaun Ferguson insisted his officers had not used rubber balls that night, despite videos showing otherwise. He later admitted that he was wrong. This episode of police terror on the expressway, followed by police deception, was a painful reminder to many in our community of the murders of Black men on the Danziger Bridge in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and the subsequent cover-up by the NOPD.  These crimes, and many other harms done particularly to communities of color, are why the police department was subjected to the federal consent decree in 2013 that it still operates under today.

Ironically, the New Orleans City Council had a meeting scheduled the next day in which it would formally commend the NOPD for its conduct during prior nonviolent demonstrations against police violence and white supremacy (the commendation was part of a larger resolution supporting the protests.) 

Within a few hours, the OPPRC had organized hundreds of public comments against the commendation, and the department did not receive it. Instead, the City Council decided to hold a hearing on the police’s use of force against protesters, and council members committed to draft an ordinance banning the use of tear gas. A rally on June 11 demanding the defunding of the NOPD’s $194 million operating budget drew hundreds of community members, many newly galvanized by the uprisings that began in the wake of the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. As a result of that day’s organizing, the New Orleans City Council received over 1,500 public comments, many demanding that the NOPD be demilitarized and defunded.

Since 2004, OPPRC has led New Orleans in the fight to reduce the number of people incarcerated in Orleans Parish, and to improve the conditions of confinement for those held in the parish jail.  The OPPRC’s work has led to a dramatic decline in the number of people of incarcerated in New Orleans. In 2005, about 6,300 people were incarcerated at the Orleans Parish Prison—more than five times the national average. Now, less than 800 people are imprisoned at the Orleans Justice Center, which replaced Orleans Parish Prison.  The OPPRC’s work has resulted in the most significant reduction in jail population per capita in the United States. 

We’re not just talking numbers—we’re talking people. Mass incarceration ruins lives, destroys families, and destabilizes communities. After a few days in jail, people often lose their jobs, homes, and custody of their kids then return to the community further traumatized by the violence inside carceral facilities. OPPRC stands at the frontlines of the struggle against racialized generational impoverishment and dispossession by ensuring that fewer and fewer New Orleanians are incarcerated.

For years, Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman has attempted to expand the often deadly jail through the construction of a facility for people with serious mental illness. Because we know that a new jail is the last thing our community needs and that Gusman’s often deadly jail has been operating under a federal consent decree since 2013, OPPRC has fought to halt this proposal every step of the way.  We are encouraged that the New Orleans city government is finally starting to support our stance in opposing the creation of this facility.  But this isn’t enough.  On July 13, attorneys involved in the jail’s consent decree said they didn’t oppose Gusman’s request to bring the jail back under his control, all as staff violence against incarcerated people—and COVID-19 infections—continue. 

More important, New Orleans spends nearly a quarter of its budget on policing.  It is necessary to defund the NOPD and reallocate the funds to housing, education, healthcare, economic justice, and the many other research-backed methods that we know will decrease crime while helping to create better conditions in our community.

Our country is experiencing a growing consciousness about—and a cultural renaissance around—what it will take for us to truly shed the painful legacy of white supremacy. This reckoning obliges us to look beyond individual bias and into the roots of all of our institutions—from government and the workplace to healthcare and, of course, the criminal legal system—and to change or, if necessary, uproot them. It’s not only statues and flags that are monuments to white supremacy: Laws, prison buildings, and police departments share the same dubious distinction. Community organizers from around the country, many of them long-term activists for police and prison abolition, are finally being heard and heeded by large numbers of people. It is a moment when Mariame Kaba can ask in the pages of the New York Times: “What would the country look like if it had billions of extra dollars to spend on housing, food and education for all?”  

Like many cities across the country, New Orleans has consistently disinvested in social services and affordable housing. In fact, New Orleans is in many ways a symbol of the dangers of privatization and the defunding of services that actually benefit people, including its replacement of public schools with an all-charter system after Katrina. These practices of neoliberal austerity have left Black and Latinx communities wracked by poverty—the child poverty rate in New Orleans is at the same level it was pre-Katrina—and, yes, crime. Therefore, we too ask: “What would our city look like with $195 million of its budget to spend on housing, food and education for all?”  In fact, we must ask it.  If not now, when?

In repeated conversations with Sheriff Gusman and his lawyer Blake Arcuri, OPPRC has heard the same tired claim: “It’s out of our hands. Once people are brought here by the police, we have to house them.” So in a sense law enforcement itself has made the argument for us: To abolish the Orleans Parish Prison, we must defund NOPD.  If the police department is the channel that feeds the monster of mass incarceration, it’s time to starve the beast by shutting the front door.

Sade Dumas, a native New Orleanian, is the executive director of the Orleans Parish Prison Reform Coalition.

David Brazil is a community pastor.  With Sarah Pritchard, he co-founded Abolition Apostles, a national jail and prison ministry.