Politics & Policy

Desperate & Incarcerated

Katrina's prison toll.

“Only the dead are lower on the list to be helped than the prisoners.”–Ron Dinnocenzo, Prison Fellowship Director, Louisiana.

Given what’s been going on in New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina–there have been reports of looting, shootings, and rapes–one would not be surprised if many Americans held the view that the prisoners ought to get in line behind the dead. If one had relatives in New Orleans (as I do), one might even be tempted to suggest that if jail inmates are now going hungry, they might try nibbling on those fancy televisions they stole last week.

Richard Payne–a long-time Prison Fellowship employee who has spent the last eight days organizing relief efforts for thousands of New Orleans area jail and prison inmates–is used to this attitude. But the role of Prison Fellowship, he says, is to non-judgmentally help “the least, the last, and the lost.”

Also, the waterlogged. Ministry employees and volunteers have been heroically assisting Louisiana state correctional officials in the massive job of relocating the inmates of several prisons–more than 8,000 people–away from flooded areas where they lacked food, water, electricity, and staff. As water flooded the jails last week, inmates were left in the dark, both figuratively and literally. “Water was in the facility, and they had no information about what was going on,” says Louisiana Department of Corrections spokeswoman Pam Laborde. “It was a desperate situation.” But–contrary to what was going on outside prison walls last week–no rioting broke out. However, many prisoners–60 percent of whom are from New Orleans–remain desperately worried about their families in the aftermath of Katrina.

So do prison staffers, some of whom do not know where their own families are, but who cannot leave prisoners unguarded in order to find out. Nearly a thousand sentenced and pre-trial detainees have been shipped to a tent city erected at Angola, a huge state penitentiary near Baton Rouge, where the bleary-eyed staff has been working multiple shifts to prepare for prisoners who arrive hungry and dehydrated.

“Warden Burl Cain is taking in about 2,000 to 3,000 more inmates than he normally does, but they’re not giving him any extra supplies–pillows, blankets, soap, dry socks, or food,” Payne says. They’re not available because the Hurricane interrupted supply routes. Prison Fellowship staff and volunteers are working round the clock to gather up and deliver these items.

Paine also called colleagues at Prison Fellowship’s national headquarters in Lansdowne, Virginia and asked them to pass the hat for relief-supply funds. Within hours, more than $1,000 had been raised, and by early this week, Prison Fellowship supporters had sent in an additional $29,000 for prisoner relief. An emergency fund has been set up at the Louisiana department of corrections credit union to purchase food and supplies for detainees arrested during or after the storm. The money will also help the families of corrections officers who have lost their homes. “The whole department is devastated, but they still have to stay on duty,” Payne notes. “What we’re asking for now is diapers, baby food, formula, nonperishable food, and clothing” for their families.

In the wake of the hurricane and flooding, there is no shortage of people with whom to sympathize: Frightened children separated from their parents, elderly people frantic for lifesaving medications, even homeless dogs and cats now wandering the soggy streets of New Orleans. Why should Americans worry about helping last week’s thugs and looters, and those serving long prison terms for worse crimes?

In part because, as Winston Churchill reminds us, a society is judged by how it treats its most helpless members. And partly because our moral tradition suggests it’s unfitting to attempt to determine worthiness when people need food, water, shelter, and dry clothing. As Prison Fellowship Chairman Chuck Colson put it, “The Coast Guard members descending on cables with baskets to rescue people stranded on their roofs didn’t know if they were rescuing people living sinful lives or people living righteous lives. They just knew they needed to be rescued.” And he adds: “We should certainly condemn what these criminals have done, but at the same time, we need to love them and help them.”

Even if–after watching some of them commit their crimes on television last week–we have to hold our noses as we do it. And even if our own relatives are among their victims.

To help Louisiana detainees arrested during or after Hurricane Katrina and the families of corrections officers, send a donation to:

Hurricane V Fund

Department of Corrections Credit Union

504 Mayflower Street

PO Box 94304

Baton Rouge, LA 70804-9304

For more information on how to help prison inmates, visit the Prison Fellowship website.

Anne Morse is a senior writer at the the Wilberforce Forum, a division of the Prison Fellowship. Two of her relatives are still missing in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.


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