Hi y'all - the New Orleans crew spent yesterday and today getting acquainted with the New Orleans Innocence Project, meeting staff and learning about the work we’re taking on for the next two weeks.
IPNO investigates cases in Louisiana and the southern half of Mississippi (they recently opened an office in northern Mississippi to cover that area). According to IPNO information, “Louisiana has the highest per capita incarceration rate in the world and the highest per capita rate in the world of people sentenced to life without parole. In 2006, Mississippi had the 3rd highest incarceration rate in the country and the world.” The majority of these people are poor and people of color – in Mississippi, for example, 35% of the population as a whole is African American whereas over 70% of the state’s prisoners are African Americans.
Staff member J.T. explained that to us the state is obligated to provide an attorney for prisoners on death row; for those sentenced to life in prison, the state is not statutorily obligated to provide counsel. J.T. himself was wrongly convicted and spent 18 years in prison, 14 of which were on death row. He was exonerated in 2003 and now works for IPNO and runs Resurrection After Exoneration, the first exoneree run re-entry initiative in the country.
The nine cases that our crew will be working on are in southern Mississippi. It seems like we will be traveling all over the lower half of the state, maybe we will even run into other members of the group in Jackson and Greenville!
Tomorrow we are off to explore New Orleans. So far, we have visited the French Quarter and Algiers Point, which appear to have recovered from Hurricane Katrina in 2005. We haven’t had much chance to visit other areas. Although getting lost driving around the Superdome, on one of the coldest nights here this winter, we saw a group of homeless people under an over pass. Sleeping bags and tents spread out for several blocks with at least 100 people seeking cover under the cement expressway overhead. (According to the Christian Science Monitor in March 2007, on any given night 12,000 people in New Orleans need shelter, before Katrina this number was 6,000).
I think we have yet to see the extent of the slow recovery of the city and the difficulties of living here after the hurricane.