For the Good of the Gulf: UNC Law Winter/Spring Break Pro Bono Project

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

So this is how it feels...

Too exhausted to think, to move, even to sleep. We spent the day in and out of Orleans Parish Prison interviewing inmates who have been declared incompetent and been remanded to Feliciana, the state mental health facility, in an attempt to restore them to competency so that they can stand trial. However, since Katrina, all the mental health facilities in the city of New Orleans (including group homes and halfway houses) have been closed, meaning that Feliciana is always full. No patients are being transferred out to transitional housing, so no inmates can be transferred in for treatment and potential restoration of competency. The end result is that a large number of mentally ill or mentally retarded defendants are being held indefinitely without trial in violation of their constitutional rights. Our job has been to interview a handful of these defendants in hopes of finding a good exemplar case or two for habeas corpus petitions that will potentially provide some impetus for a change in the system.

It's probably obvious to all that this is easier said than done. Today, Allison and I interviewed an OPP inmate who was declared competent in April, then incompetent in July and again in September. He was remanded to Feliciana, but because of the lack of beds, he is still being held in OPP. At first he was absolutely silent, nearly catatonic, in response to our questions, but later began to speak. He told us that today was March 27 and that all he had to do was wait eight and a half months until September 16, when he would be getting out, so he had nothing to say to us. We tried to explain that we were there to help his lawyer get him out, but to no avail. When he saw us taking notes, he decided that we were reporters with the Washington Post, and refused to speak to us further. We couldn't even get him to give us his birthdate, let alone tell us about his medical treatment, what medications he should be taking, and so on. After 10 minutes of trying to coax him to tell us more, we gave up and left, feeling bereft and powerless. Clearly the man is in need of significant medical treatment that he is not receiving, which is pretty much all we can tell his lawyer. So, more likely than not, he will continue to sit in jail for many more months, perhaps more than the presumptive maximum sentence for the crime with which he has been charged, but not tried or convicted. And there's very little that anyone can do about it. At least for now.

None of us need belabor the fact that the criminal justice system here, especially after the storm, is in desperate need of reform. In fact, before we started our work here, we were asked to sign a contract stating that we would not make any public statements about the quality of the system or the work of any of the partners in the Katrina Gideon Interview Project. But there's really nothing I can say about the system that hasn't already been said. What I can say, however, is that I am utterly exhausted from only three days of trying to manuever in the system, trying to stay on the sheriff's good side so that we can keep going in and out of the jail, trying to figure out when and if inmates will be available for interviews, trying to hear them through the thick plexiglass that separates them from us in the interview rooms, trying to squeeze in a midday meal in the midst of the chaos, walking the several blocks from the public defender's office to the jail and back in the rain, and generally ending each day feeling completely ineffective.

If what I am feeling is even one one-thousandth of what these attorneys go through every day here in New Orleans, I can't imagine how they manage to pull themselves out of bed in the morning. I have the deepest respect and admiration for their courage and their determination in the face of tremendous obstacles. If I turn out to be even one one-thousandth of the lawyer that most of them are, I'll consider myself pretty good.


  • Mandy,

    we are so grateful here for all of your help. The blog is a wonderful thing and I'm going to encourage our attorneys and volunteers to check in regularly.

    We have a formal thank you and follow-up coming your way, but please let the whole UNC group know how very much we appreciate their work. Our DOC and OPCSO partners are enthusiastic about any ideas we can generate to assist them with this enormous problem.


    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 11:21 PM  

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