Rosetta James cries for her son 29 year old Glenn Thomas, who died in the Orleans Parish Prison. Unfortunately, none of the Prison authorities, the Sheriff’s office nor City or State Officials notified her of this. She had to be told by a family friend who received a call from their loved one who was in the jail with Glenn. Rosetta angrily went to the prison on July 4th for information, she was told that her son who had absolutely no known medical problems, died the night before of “natural causes”, and that if she wanted she could call back in a month to get an official report.
Glenn Thomas died while awaiting his day in court; he was picked up on a warrant for failure to appear in court for simple drug possession. The unfortunate part happens to be, that on his stated court date the city of New Orleans was uninhabitable and people were being kept from entering in this part of the city. So, if no one can enter, then how was the court date still in effect? He sat in jail for one year awaiting his trial date but never made it. Criminal Sheriff Marlin Gusman’s public information officer, Renee Lapeyrolerie, said they couldn’t provide details about Thomas’s death but said, “Well, in his criminal history he had a lot of drug arrests. Those things can be linked to health problems.”
This is the third such “natural cause” death there this year, and they just don’t know how any of these deaths occurred. Sheriff Gusman blames anything that goes on in the jail as “the prisoners own fault or not enough money”. We know that he didn’t commit suicide, and money isn’t the problem as the jail receives a per diem amount and 3.2 million dollars per year intended for medical expenses towards the inmates’ wellbeing. In his 2007 budget request to the City Council, Gusman asked for an additional $5 million for medical services, a request that was granted. People are speculating that the Sheriff would like to get the numbers inhabiting his prison back to the pre-Katrina amount, stating that they are pretty sure they know exactly “who” will be the inhabitants.
Sheriff Gusman has made sure that the city’s trail to revitalization will be paved by his inmates–literally. According to the Nation, “since Katrina, Gusman has used his Community Service Program and Neighborhood Response Team to deliver cheap labor for reconstruction projects. His office’s website features photos of inmates in orange jumpers and sweatshirts emblazoned with Sheriff Gusman Community Service Program next to road signs announcing, Project Clean-Up, Inmates Working.” According to the Nation, in its first session back after Katrina the legislature amended a law regulating parish jail labor in order to grant immunity to prison authorities “for injuries or damages caused or suffered by prisoners participating in any work program during incarceration at parish jail facilities.” When asked, a legislative staffer about the origins of the post-Katrina amendment, she said, “I believe it was because there was a labor shortage.”
This is pretty much the way things were about a century ago. The Antebellum city records refer to what is now the Orleans Parish Prison as the “Workhouse”. Also along with those arrested for crime, the jail was a storehouse for slaves whose masters chose to lease them to the Workhouse. The same archives also disclose that Blacks were sent to the Workhouse for “claiming to be free”: In the space where the master’s name was usually recorded, these inmates were referred to as “so-called free.” After the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation, Blacks arrested in New Orleans for black-code crimes such as vagrancy and unemployment were taken to the parish Workhouse. During Reconstruction, the incarcerated former slaves provided a stable pool of forced labor for railroad companies, agriculture and industry.
Lieutenant Eric Donnelly, director of the sheriff’s work-release program told a local business paper that the program played such a vital role in re-starting the city’s economic engine. “As soon as the hurricane ended and we got a new phone, it was ringing off the hook from employers saying they needed their inmates,” Donnelly said. “So as soon as we were getting them back in we had [employers] coming to pick them up themselves. That’s how much they rely on this program.” These employers might as well be calling looking for their “Slaves”. But, obviously to New Orlean’s as well as the rest of the nation, it doesn’t matter as long as those bad, bad black people are off the streets, whether that be dead from god only knows what in an overcrowded prison yet to even face charges, or worked like a slave just as their ancestors had, by a chain gang happy Sheriff.