Maryland Bar Bulletin
Publications : Bar Bulletin : March 2007

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In Louisiana, Due Process Another Casualty of Katrina

As many as eight inmates are packed into a cell built for two, some never having stood trial or even seen an attorney for up to 20 months. But this isn't some Kafkaesque penal colony. It is Louisiana's Gulf Coast in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

"You can imagine something like this happening in a Third World country, but in our country, the people are supposed to have these rights," says law student Shruti Kashyap. "It is disheartening."

Kashyap is one of a group of 53 students from the University of Maryland School of Law and eight from the University of Baltimore School of Law who spent their winter break in January on a working tour of New Orleans and the surrounding storm-stricken area to see firsthand what happens to the criminal justice system when natural disasters disrupt the flow of life. And while the students traveled to the region to help local public defenders and assist with rebuilding efforts, they came back with a better understanding and appreciation for what they have, and just how much work still needs to be done.

"Everything the students did was a learning experience," says University of Maryland School of Law Professor Doug Colbert, one faculty member who traveled with the group, which also included five Maryland public defenders.

In preparation for the trip, the students first attended three lectures taught by Colbert – Louisiana law, interviewing and cultural differences –meant to offer more of a background to perform the tasks that were placed upon them. The students also used a viewing of Spike Lee's movie When the Levees Broke, the BBC documentary Prisoners of Katrina and fellow-student Brigid Ryan's prior experience working for the New Orleans Public Defenders Office as motivation for the trip.

Once there, the students went to work in a makeshift office with tables and chairs, using computers that they had brought with them. They then broke up into three groups. One group went to work helping to clean up and rebuild houses in New Orleans, working from eight in the morning until four in the afternoon. They were paired with the Catholic Charities' Operation Helping Hands project (with which University of Maryland students had also worked in March 2006), gutting houses so that the rebuilding could start.

"The people didn't just lose their houses – they lost their whole history," says Alicia Welch, who worked on the Building Projects in both March 2006 and in January.

The second group worked closely with the public defender's office and recently-arrested citizens at Magistrate's Court. The students would wake up early to review files before arriving at the court at 8:30 a.m. After their bail sentencing, the students met with those under arrest to interview them and help with finding ways to post the bail, be it through family or friends. Charges ranged from minor drug offenses to murders, with the majority being minor offenses. They would then draft a memorandum for the public defender's office, incorporating the information in order to help the public defender's office further the case.

The third – and largest – group of students worked on the backlog project, interviewing incarcerated people awaiting trial since before Katrina and other defendants who had yet to see a lawyer because of the disaster. In some cases, inmates had been arrested but not formally charged, with some having waited for more than a year.

"The inmates didn't know where anyone was," says Rashi Jawade, who worked on the backlog project. "They knew where their family was before the hurricane, but after, everyone was everywhere." Most families had to relocate because of the hurricane.

Some students were given the task of visiting remote prisons to talk with inmates; in one instance, one group traveled four hours to talk with an inmate who had sat in jail for more than a year without the opportunity to speak with a lawyer. Once there, the students spent the entire day working with inmates, finding time to help even more than the number to which they had been assigned.

"To see prisoners denied their day in court, not offered due process of law, is shocking," says Kashyap, whose group had traveled to Allen Correctional Center in Kinder, Lousiana, to meet with two inmates, only to find many more there needing help. Others visited Angola State Penitentiary, which, with a population of around 5,000 inmates, has a reputation as one of the largest (and roughest) prisons in the United States. When Katrina's floodwaters overwhelmed other prisons, inmates were hastily relocated to these and other facilities, leading to the aforementioned overcrowded conditions.

Understandably, returning home was no easy task. "It was hard to adjust coming back," admits Anne Deady, a student who worked with the public defender's office.

"All the little things were gone [in New Orleans] – things we take for granted," adds Miguel Palmeiro, speaking of a McDonald's that no longer exists, washed away by the floodwaters. "In the Lower Ninth Ward, all the houses were gone. It was like a war-torn country."

"We felt a lot more could have happened if we were able to spend more time," suggests Jawade. "Their resources are lacking personnel, technology, supplies."

But amidst the devastation, they also found promise. "One of the best things we brought there was hope and enthusiasm," says Palmeiro. "We were the fresh legs, new troops."

While staying in New Orleans, the students found inexpensive housing in a hotel near the city's famous French Quarter, an area which reflects substantially-less structural devastation than other neighborhoods. "It was like it hasn't been touched by the hurricane – everything was painted and new," notes Jawade. "It was like we were in a different state."

"The French Quarter has been rebuilt," adds Palmeiro, "but in other parts of the city there are people with no homes or schools."

Funding for the project came through private contributions, as well as matching contributions from the University of Maryland School of Law. The Baltimore City Bar Foundation, Maryland Bar Foundation, faculty, student organizations and Board of Visitors also helped contributed. In total, students raised over $20,000 to make the trip happen.

"People need to know how much needs to be done," says Deady. "There is an avenue for everyone to help."

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Publications : Bar Bulletin: March 2007