Professor Andrea Armstong calls for a citizen oversight of Orleans Parish jails in a new essay penned for The Data Center. The report titled The Impact of 300 Years of Jail Conditions is part of a series inviting local authors to weigh in modern-day racial disparities in New Orleans and the history behind them.
Professor Armstrong spoke with The Advocate for their story on the report:
"A historical account of the jail is important to understand the centuries of inhumane conditions imposed overwhelmingly on African-American members of our community," she writes. "Written accounts from the 1800s to the present describe dangerous, unsanitary and torturous conditions for Orleans Parish detainees."
After a pair of jails built inside what is known today as the French Quarter, the city constructed a new prison near Congo Square that opened in 1837. Armstrong says that 80 percent of the inmates, who were forced to work, were black. The jail also held "mass whippings, with groups of 30 men at a time being lashed." Many of the inmates were slaves.
Conditions in city jails remained "horrendous" after the end of slavery and even of official segregation a century later, Armstrong says. Cells meant for two people often held six to eight at the notorious Old Parish Prison. Gay people were segregated and allowed only one hour a day out of their cells in 1970.
In 1999, then-Sheriff Charles Foti's deputies still used 50,000-volt stun belts to transport HIV-positive inmates to treatment.
Armstrong also recounts the well-known story of the jail's flooding after Hurricane Katrina. Since then, reforms have cut the jail's population from at least 6,375 inmates to a number that now hovers around 1,500.
Yet the jail's population is still about 80 percent black males, even though they make up less than a third of the city's population between the ages of 15 and 84, Armstrong says.