The Impact of 300 Years of Jail Conditions

Andrea Armstrong (Loyola University New Orleans)

Published: Mar 29, 2018

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Beginning from the first incarnation of Orleans Parish Prison in 1721 by Bienville at Jackson Square to its current iteration under federal court supervision, the form and function of the jail has changed. Written accounts from the 1800s to present describe dangerous, unsanitary, and torturous conditions for Orleans parish detainees. As recently as 2013, Judge Africk described the conditions in the jail as “an indelible stain on the community.”  Unearthing the history of the New Orleans jail and its relationship with the city, this essay discusses new solutions that include the voices of the impacted communities.

Introduction

We have jailed people in New Orleans for almost as long as the city has existed. Beginning from the first incarnation of Orleans Parish Prison in 1721 by Bienville at Jackson Square to its current iteration under federal court supervision near the criminal courthouse at Tulane Avenue and Broad Street, the jail has imposed inhumane conditions on the people detained there. But the conditions in the jail not only affect those detained, but our community as well. Modern accounts of Orleans Parish Prison (OPP), recently renamed the Orleans Justice Center, have focused on the impact of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and its aftermath, with little attention to centuries of detention that came before. This article links the current conditions in the jail to the jail’s historical role in New Orleans to explore the extent to which detention in the New Orleans jail has contributed to racial inequality in New Orleans today. A historical account of the jail is important to understand the centuries of inhumane conditions imposed overwhelmingly on African American members of our community. Written accounts from the 1800s to present describe dangerous, unsanitary, and torturous conditions for Orleans parish detainees. As recently as 2013, Judge Africk described the conditions in the jail as “an indelible stain on the community.”1 These dehumanizing conditions are disproportionately imposed on African Americans. Local, state, and federal legislative reforms of criminal justice policies have focused on the drivers and outputs of incarceration, but have largely ignored the conditions of confinement themselves. In so doing, these reform efforts ignore the devastating and lifelong effects on detained individuals and our community. This essay concludes by highlighting the importance of community engagement in improving conditions at the jail.

Continue reading the full report [Download PDF]

Citations and sources can be found in the PDF copy of the report.

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