Melissa: 16 years ago, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, officials at the Orleans Parish Prison abandoned the people in their custody. Prisoners were left locked, caged and without power as sewage tainted floodwaters began to fill prison cells. They had no food or water, some of them up to four days without it. As Hurricane Ida approached, multiple prisoners rights organizations put the Orleans Parish Prison officials on notice that this time they would raise the alarm in both social and traditional media if prisoners were once again abandoned.
Gina Womack is the co-founder and executive director of Families and Friends of Louisiana's Incarcerated Children, or as we call it FFLIC, and she joins us to discuss the most vulnerable of incarcerated populations, children. Welcome, Gina.
Gina Womack: Thank you for having me, Melissa.
Melissa: Let's talk first about the system of so-called juvenile justice or childhood incarceration in Louisiana even before storms or outside of the storms. What is it like? What's happening in the state?
Gina Womack: Yes, ironically, this month is going to mark our 20th anniversary. When I started this organization, working with a partner organization, we were looking at the conditions of confinement for the children who were locked in our state's custody. To say the least, the conditions were really dismal. Fast forward, 20 years later, we passed the Juvenile Justice Reform Act in 2003, we're still seeing a lot of the same issues that we saw before.
While many things have changed, like the number of young people who are actually incarcerated, it's unfortunate that we still have to exist to support parents, to fight for services and support for their children who need them. Some things have changed, but really little has changed. We're still concerned about if our state is working to set our children up for success.
Melissa: Let's talk a little bit about the Ida moment. I know that young people were evacuated from the Bridge City Youth Center to other facilities. I'm wondering if you know where they are, what their conditions are, if their families were told about where they were going?
Gina Womack: Yes, that is one thing that has changed. The young people have been evacuated. Speaking to some families, what their concerns are is that while they know their young person has been evacuated, they don't know exactly where they are. They are able to speak to their children only through third-party process. Their young people are just not able to pick up the phones and contact their parents. That's a grave concern. As you can imagine, trying to evacuate without your children is really very stressful and traumatic for parents.
Melissa: Can we talk about COVID-19? Clearly, in adult prisons, the question of COVID-19, the infection rate, the death rate, and what we might now think of is that the first year, year and a half of the pandemic was a central social justice issue. Many people weren't talking about incarcerated young people or confined young people because we didn't think that COVID-19 had these big effects on young people. Now, we know that it does. What do you know about COVID-19 in Louisiana's youth detention centers?
Gina Womack: Yes. That's just the crazy thing about COVID, we didn't know a lot about it. To me, I don't know why we would have taken any chances with young people as well. When COVID hit, and the governor here called for, and allowed for older folks that are incarcerated to be transferred out, that wasn't the case for our young people. That was a grave concern for us, and families as well because the order should have come down and young people should have been able to return home safely to their families, so their families could care for them and that wasn't the case.
Melissa: I see that local reporting in New Orleans is already talking about the way that Ida and particularly the power outage is going to cause even more backlogs in the court system. As someone who's doing, again, criminal justice work, do you have a solution for addressing these or sets of solutions for addressing these concerns about COVID-related court delays and now Ida-related court delays?
Gina Womack: Good question. Again, we were hoping that we would be able to reform this system in three years and the law that we put in place under Juvenile Justice Reform Act of 2003, that was to look and make sure we were divesting from incarceration and putting more time and money into services on the front end. We maintain, if we had followed the blueprint of the Reform Act in 2003, we would have less and less young people locked in prison, and at home with their families in their communities, and having to deal with COVID and Ida in such a manner of having kids locked in cages wouldn't necessarily be on the front end.
That's the grave concern for us that, again, are we protecting our young people? Thinking about the solutions, the solutions are community-based programs that we've been talking about for the last 20 and even longer. We know that children are better served at home, in their communities, with people who love and care for them.
Melissa: Gina, one last question. There was a school shooting here in my community in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, just yesterday, and I spent several hours with parents and families of the local high school. One student shot and killed another student in school. As I sat and talked with the parents, we're only in our second week of classes, and they were telling me lots of stories about fights about guns. Some that were happening in schools, some that were happening at home.
I have to say to a parent, all of them were saying, "We knew it. We knew that our kids going back after a year and a half of being out of school, out of class, and they just sent them back and haven't even hardly really talked about what they were experiencing over the past year and a half." You've been doing this work for 20 years. Yesterday in my community we lost two children. We lost both the child who was killed and undoubtedly the child who did the shooting. Do you have words for communities that are grieving like mine is right now about how we can think about preventing this kind of loss at the front end?
Gina Womack: I'm so sorry to hear and learn of the loss. I saw the news later last night. It continues to pain me to think about when children, communities are suffering due to COVID and the many disasters that we're having to deal with and so you would think that we would have opportunities to have more counselors in schools, time, taking time to really have conversations, again preventing these things prior to, right? If we were going to send young people back to school, having services and circles and counselors in our communities that are able to prepare young people and talk about what's happening, how are they feeling? How are they coping?
Families are losing jobs, they're losing homes, they're being evicted. I talked to one family trying to evacuate, they were living in their car. We're hurting. The poverty rate here in Louisiana and New Orleans is still very high. Families need to be able to be supported. So far, we're thinking about what our young people are experiencing at this moment is crucial. Up until, again, that we are forward-thinking and we're keeping our children close to our hearts and understanding what they need, and listening to families and young people, I don't see how we're going to be able to really move forward.
Melissa: Gina Womack is the co-founder and executive director of Families and Friends of Louisiana's Incarcerated Children, or FFLIC. Thank you for joining us, Gina. We're sending our thoughts to you and to your community who are continuing to face the aftermath of Ida.
Gina Womack: Thank you, Melissa, and we're sending the same to your community and to children across this country.
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