I never wanted to see the inside of a prison. No one does, really, especially not in New Orleans. After arrest here, the accused are ushered in front of a magistrate who recites their charges and sets their bonds in a factory-like process. Before they can process what has just happened, before they’ve had a meaningful conversation (if any at all) with a lawyer, the accused are prodded along like shackled cattle back into the holding tank. Their eyes are filled variously with confusion, frustration, or anger, all of which give way to resignation and despair if they can’t make bail. What awaits them inside is a daily struggle to survive. The conditions are assuredly inhospitable if not inhumane. I confess that much comes as no surprise. There is an element, however, that I have come to crave.
It is that sense of humanity that we have discarded and forgotten. I came to realize this after visiting a particular client in jail for the second time. After I greeted him, he paused and looked at me searchingly. Then he said something like this: “You really came back. The guards told me nobody’s coming to see me. Everyone says there’s no way a lawyer will come and talk to you. And you’re here again?” I assured him that I would be back as many times as needed to prepare his defense. He can’t believe his luck. His hope is percolating, which I sense overtaking his despair.
This encounter seems repeated with each person I meet in jail. They all are surprised that a lawyer would take an interest in their cases. This is not to say that the public defenders have intentionally, systematically ignored their clients. Rather, they are simply too overloaded with cases to possibly devote such time to each of their clients. Hence, we have had to turn to volunteers, like the law students from the Student Hurricane Network, to help fill in the breach. What are we to make of a justice system that must depend on the good graces of volunteers? In just the first week of student trips, we have uncovered numerous pre-trial detainees who have been held well past the maximum time allowed for a speedy trial, and sometimes beyond the maximum time allowed for a sentence even if they had been convicted. It is a system that has failed. Without advocates, the accused are subject to the merciless winds of a system stacked against them.
We evidently have a tremendous blind spot for those accused of crimes, especially for those who are too poor to afford a lawyer. Out of sight, out of mind is the prevailing view. When we leave these people literally defenseless, we have stripped them of the most basic elements of their humanity, treating them purely as caged animals. (For the skeptics out there, I suppose I should note that the client described above is one that I believe to be wrongfully accused; the presumption of innocence, in any event, should serve as an equalizer for that conceit.) If we should accept that sorry state of affairs, then we might as well check our own humanity at the door.