Judge Vows to Free Inmates Held Since Katrina Hit

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A New Orleans judge pledges to begin releasing jail inmates whose cases have been delayed since Hurricane Katrina by a shortage of public defenders. Prosecutors warn that releasing the accused without trial could put the community in danger.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning. Here we are almost a year after Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast and prison officials in Louisiana are still finding people who've been lost in the system. Next Tuesday it may come to a climax. That's the day that a judge has threatened to start letting people out of prison if they have not yet seen a lawyer.

NPR's Ari Shapiro reports from New Orleans.

ARI SHAPIRO reporting:

Here at the Criminal Court things are not even close to normal. Plywood covers damaged parts of the building and there is construction all over. But the courthouse is open, which is more than could be said a few months ago.

Mr. CALVIN JOHNSON (New Orleans Judge): We are only in really about one-fourth of this building.

SHAPIRO: Calvin Johnson is one of the judges here.

Mr. JOHNSON: You're in a building that's a city block in length and that is three, four floors. And we are occupying a floor, and not even the entire floor.

SHAPIRO: Is that a metaphor for the criminal justice system as a whole right now?

Mr. JOHNSON: I'd say that's a pretty good one.

SHAPIRO: Earlier this week Johnson got a phone call: prison officials found another 61 people who'd been sitting in jail for the last year, lost in the system, waiting for a day in court.

Mr. JOHNSON: I have tried, and we're still trying, to get to the point where I can say to people like you, there are none left. I can't say that today.

SHAPIRO: When Mr. Johnson talks about people who've been lost in prison for a year, Ivy Gisclair shudders.

Mr. IVY GISCLAIR (Former Prisoner): I would probably maybe be still be sitting in there, too.

SHAPIRO: Just before the storm hit, Gisclair was arrested for unpaid traffic tickets and sentenced to two months in prison. Then Katrina came. Gisclair spent three days in the darkened heat without food or water. The guards had all left. Finally, he was evacuated and he ended up at Bossier Maximum Security Prison in northern Louisiana. He told the guard, my release date has passed. Can I go home now?

Mr. GISCLAIR: And he just started cursing me out and, natural reaction I guess, I started cursing him back. And he sprayed pepper spray through the food slot in the door.

SHAPIRO: Gisclair says the guard left and came back with others.

Mr. GISCLAIR: So I got down on my knees and put my hands behind my head just to show them they wasn't in no danger. And they still came in there, shot me with the taser, beat me. When they stopped shocking me they all jumped on me. Threw cuffs on me, shackles. Started kicking me and stuff.

SHAPIRO: He says the guards alternated beating and tasering him until he blacked out.

Eric Balaban works for the ACLU Prison Project. He says the only outside corroboration of Gisclair's story is the accounts of hundreds of other detainees who reported similar brutality at Bossier and elsewhere.

Mr. ERIC BALABAN (ACLU): It often comes down to the word of an inmate or many inmates versus the word of officers, even in a fully functional prison or jail.

SHAPIRO: Bossier was a brand-new facility that wasn't even supposed to be open when Katrina hit. Ed Baswell is the public information officer for the sheriff's department that runs the prison.

Mr. ED BASWELL (Public Information Officer): That is not the kind of behavior that we would engage in. We just don't do business that way. Our guards are trained, highly trained and professional. We do not abuse anyone.

SHAPIRO: Ivy Gisclair was finally released from prison when his mother faxed his court documents to the facility. That was a month after his scheduled release date. Gisclair believes if his mother hadn't been around, or if his records had been destroyed in the storm, he might still be in prison today.

Mr. JOHNSON: I want to say he wouldn't, obviously.

SHAPIRO: Judge Calvin Johnson.

Mr. JOHNSON: I want to say absolutely, positively no, he wouldn't be still in the system. The reality though is it's conceivable that he would.

SHAPIRO: Nobody's really clear about whose job it is to find the prisoners who may be lost in the system. Tulane law professor Pamela Metzger has just sort of filled in the gap with her students. They get lists from the Department of Corrections, hundreds of people's names. And then they try to figure out who shouldn't be there. She says in the last six months they've had well over a hundred people released. Many of them had never even seen a lawyer.

Professor PAMELA METZGER (Tulane University): I think part of the problem is, is that we all want to pass the buck and say it's not my fault, it's not fault, it's not my fault. But if you have a collective sense of our obligation to do justice, then I think that we all have to assume some responsibility

SHAPIRO: Metzger wants the district attorney who's charged these people to take a more active role in fixing the problem.

Ms. METZGER: It is profoundly dishonorable to know that poor people are lost in the system without lawyers and that they are in jail because your office has charged them with a crime and to do nothing to facilitate making sure that that person has their Constitutional rights.

Mr. EDDIE JORDAN (District Attorney, New Orleans): The fact that they're in jail today I think is a strong indication that they need to stay in jail until they have their day in court.

SHAPIRO: Eddie Jordan is New Orleans' district attorney. He thinks most defendants are not spending too much time in prison.

Mr. JORDAN: I don't think that it's my job to look at the case from the standpoint of the defendant, and that's really what you're asking me to do in a sense. That's what I'd be doing if I were trying to find out under what circumstances would I join in an effort to have a person released from prison.

SHAPIRO: And then there's the public defender's office that's supposed to be representing these people. It's understaffed and under-resourced.

Professor RONALD SULLIVAN (Yale University): There are only four working computers for an office that is, you know, supposed to be 55 people, and that's absolutely inadequate. You find that there are two working telephone lines for an office that's supposed to be 55 people. How does a client call their lawyer?

SHAPIRO: Ronald Sullivan is a Yale law professor, and he's working as a consultant to the New Orleans Indigent Defense Board.

Mr. SULLIVAN: It was a structurally flawed criminal justice system pre-Katrina. And this storm exposed all of the flaws.

SHAPIRO: New Orleans public defenders work part time, with private practices on the side. Defendants don't get a lawyer assigned to them. Instead, whichever public defender happens to be in court the day the defendant appears will be his or her attorney for the day. That means if someone is spending a year in prison awaiting trial, that person effectively has no lawyer.

These are long-term problems that Sullivan hopes to fix. But in the meantime, there's the short-term problem of the people who have been in prison waiting since Katrina hit a year ago. Criminal court judge Arthur Hunter has proposed a solution. Next Tuesday he'll start letting people out.

Mr. ARTHUR HUNTER (New Orleans Judge): I think it's prudent to do it on a case by case basis, because I think you should first approach those who have been charged with minor felonies, such as possession of marijuana.

SHAPIRO: He says he'll then move on to those accused of serious felonies.

Mr. HUNTER: You have to remember, everyone is presumed innocent until proven guilty. And everyone, regardless of their status, has a right to an attorney, a right to effective assistance of counsel, and a right to a fair trial.

Mr. RICHARD IEYOUB (Former Attorney General, Louisiana): We certainly don't need to start releasing individuals that have been arrested and charged with violent crimes in New Orleans.

SHAPIRO: Former Louisiana Attorney General Richard Ieyoub is part of the mayor's criminal justice committee, which is trying to rehabilitate the system in New Orleans.

Mr. IEYOUB: I can understand those cases that involve misdemeanors, where people have stayed in jail for too long. Obviously we have to do what the law requires and release those individuals. I'm just hopeful that nothing results in the release of violent criminals out on the streets again.

SHAPIRO: Judge Hunter says he'll do what the law requires of him. Right now, he says, the criminal justice system is being held together with spit and tape. And he says the day is around the corner when the spit will dry up and the tape will no longer stick.

Ari Shapiro, NPR News, New Orleans.

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