The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

Abuse, Forced Labor Rampant in New Orleans Justice System

by Jessica Azulay

The videotaped beating of a New Orleans resident offers but a small sample of the widespread brutality, deprivation and railroading that have come to characterize the city’s response to alleged crimes.

New Orleans; Oct. 12, 2005 – When Robert Davis emerged from the temporary detention center in New Orleans, his eye was swollen nearly shut, his face was bruised, and he had a couple of stitches under his left eye. He told The NewStandard that police had beaten him and then charged him with public intoxication and battery, even though he had not had a drink in 25 years and had merely asked a police officer to leave him alone.

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The 64-year-old retired elementary school teacher sat sadly in a chair Sunday morning outside the makeshift jail and struggled to read the ticket he had been issued, a carbon copy stub, much of it illegible. Perhaps most alarming to Davis at the time was that on the line for the arresting officer’s name – probably one of the men who had beaten him – there was only an "X."

"He didn’t even have his name on there," Davis remarked. "I don’t even know who he is."

What Davis also did not know was that an Associated Press cameraman had caught the beating on video, and the officers responsible now face charges. On the tape, which has since made national headlines, white police officers pummel Davis – who is black – with their fists before brutally tackling him to the ground while the bewildered retiree shows no signs of resistance.

But what did not make it into the tape or national attention was that Davis is just one of more than nearly a thousand people who have suffered in a horrific place the police call "Camp Amtrak," an improvised jail in what used to be the New Orleans bus terminal.

People who had been through Camp Amtrak told harrowing accounts of police brutality and harsh conditions.

Robert Davis displays his wounds minutes after his release from Camp Amtrak.

[PHOTO: Retired school teacher Robert Davis shows his wounds minutes after his release from Camp Amtrak. Though the story of his beating and arrest at the hands of New Orleans police are national news, the rest of his ordeal -- and that of nearly a thousand others -- exposes a far bigger, more systemic crisis. © 2005 Jessica Azulay]

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans authorities are arresting hundreds on minor charges such as breaking curfew or public intoxication, housing them in brutal conditions and then pushing them through a court process that forces most into working on clean-up projects at police facilities, according to numerous interviews and documents obtained by TNS.

At the converted Greyhound terminal, which now serves as a different kind of way station, no passengers arrive with luggage. Instead, police bring people in and book them at what used to be a ticket counter. In the back, where travelers used to board buses, police now push detainees into wire pens where they sleep on the concrete in the open air.

In interviews both inside and outside of Camp Amtrak, people who had been through the process told harrowing accounts of police brutality and harsh conditions. Some of them, like Davis, had visible injuries. Many said police had attacked them or others in their cells with pepper spray. All recounted trying to sleep on the concrete floor of the bus parking lot with just one blanket – or in some cases no blanket – to protect them from the cold and the mosquitoes which swoop in on randomly alternating nights here. None was given a phone call or access to an attorney.

“It makes me really angry, man. It made me realize that the law isn’t working the way it is supposed to.” --Anthony Jack, former inmate

"They treat us like shit," said one inmate through the wire cage. Others chimed in. One said he had not been given a blanket the night before because there were not enough to go around. Many worried that their family members did not know where they were because they had not been allowed to contact them.

Inmates held at Camp Amtrak were given only a blanket to protect them from the cold and mosquitoes

[PHOTO: Inmates held at Camp Amtrak are given only a blanket to protect them from the cold and mosquitoes that arrive with the New Orleans night. Jailers keep them in chain-link pens and refuse them access to legal representation and any contact with the outside world. © 2005 Jessica Azulay]

Michael Resovsky was one of several men outside the jail yesterday waiting to be picked up for a shift of what the sheriff’s department calls "community service." He recalled the night he spent inside: "They threw you a blanket and they gave you those MREs – you know, those meals in a bag – and they take the heater part out of it and the little bottle of hot sauce so you have to eat it cold. And you sleep on the concrete with a blanket, and the smell is not too nice.

“If they needed someone to clean up their city, they could have just asked.” --Brandon Toussaint

"They were coming in there and macing people, and people were hollering and I couldn’t get no sleep, and you know, it was pretty bad," said Resovsky, who is white.

Anthony Jack, another former detainee, added: "It was cold [inside]; I couldn’t sleep." Jack, a black immigrant from Trinidad and Tobago, said police had arrested him on his own property and charged him with violating curfew, which in most neighborhoods here is still in affect from 8 p.m. to 6 a.m.

"I was in my yard, and a young white guy came by the gate and I was talking to him and the police came and arrested both of us," he recounted. "He was outside breaking curfew; I was inside… behind the gate. The police broke my gate down with a pick-ax. They broke it completely off the fence."

Jack continued: "It makes me really angry, man. It made me realize that the law isn’t working the way it is supposed to."

Sandy Freelander, a relief volunteer from Wisconsin, was also one of the hundreds arrested. He said that he and two friends – one a New Orleanian widely known here for having helped rescue hundreds of people in the Seventh Ward during the flooding – were detained by police in a parking lot last Thursday. He said that they were on their knees with their hands behind their heads when a police officer attacked his friend.

"This middle-aged white [police officer] got real excited about kicking Reggae, Freelander said. "He came running across the parking lot and kicked [Reggae] in the hip while [Reggae] was down on his knees with his hands behind his head. [The officer] pushed [Reggae] on the ground and put his foot to the back of his neck and pointed his gun at him and said he was going to blow his fucking brains out if he moved again. This guy was really excited about beating up the first black guy he saw or something."

The lobby of the New Orleans Greyhound bus depot has been converted into a makeshift booking center

[PHOTO: The lobby of the New Orleans Greyhound bus depot has been converted into a makeshift booking center run by members of the New York City police department. Arrestees are processed here before being thrown into pens constructed in the bus parking area, before ultimately taken upstairs to "court" where most are offered a choice between forced labor and continued incarceration. © 2005 Jessica Azulay]

Even though Freelander said the three had permission from the owner to be in the parking lot, the police arrested them on charges of criminal trespassing.

Inside, Freelander said his friend was denied medical attention and that they witnessed police pepper-spraying other detainees, handcuffing a woman to a pole and leaving her for hours, and other instances of abuse. He, like all others interviewed by TNS, said he was not permitted a phone call or legal counsel, even after repeated requests.

Major Troy Poret, part of a team that runs Camp Amtrak, was unapologetic about the treatment of inmates there. He stressed that the police have been working under extraordinary conditions since Hurricane Katrina and that many of the prisoners were from out of state.

"These poor police officers are stretched out as far as they can be and yet you’ve got to mess with a bunch of gourd heads like we have down here and we have to make a jail for these kind of people," he said. "That’s what’s really bad about this whole [situation]."

Poret, like many of the people working at Camp Amtrak, used to work at Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, a notorious jail among prisoners’ rights activists for its cruel conditions.

Asked whether police were pepper-spraying prisoners, Poret was again unapologetic. "I have randomly had to use it," he said. "We have to use it if they are endangering other people in the pen or endangering their [own] lives.

"Look up at the setup that we have," he said. "It’s an old bus terminal. It’s keeping the bad guys off the streets from harassing the poor people of the New Orleans district from worrying about their houses being broken into or worrying about some drunk laying on their porch…"

When asked why police were denying detainees phone calls, Poret said the station did not have any phones for them to use.

"I have a fax phone and I have one local line [here], and that’s it," he said. "I have a cell phone, but I can’t afford a cell phone bill for a thousand people."

But Freelander stressed how important access to the outside world was during incarceration. "The phone call was the biggest thing," he said. "I mean, how are you supposed to even find out what your options are without talking to a lawyer? They’re steamrolling the whole process without giving you any legal representation."

Freelander, Resovsky and Jack all said that in the mornings after their arrest, they were taken to a courtroom upstairs where most prisoners were pressured into pleading guilty and accepting between 40 and 80 hours of unpaid labor.

A visit to the courtroom yesterday confirmed their accounts. In a stark, second-floor room of the Greyhound station, police brought in about 20 inmates who had spent the night in the cages. When they entered the room, public defender Clyde Merritt briefly explained the options while the defendants strained to hear him. In most cases, he told them, they could plead guilty and they would be sentenced to about 40 hours of "community service." If they wished the maintain their innocence, he said, they would be sent to Hunts Correctional Facility where they could wait as long as 21 days to be processed, no matter how minor or unsupported their charges.

Many of the defendants were obviously confused. They swarmed him with questions, but he held them off, telling them that he could not give them individual advice. For that, he said, they would have to retain their own attorneys.

Off to the side, the lone female defendant stood shyly in her pajamas and flip-flops. She later told the judge she had been arrested right in front of her house.

In the end, given the choice between unpaid work and continued incarceration, nearly all chose to plead guilty.

According to documents obtained by The NewStandard, most who pass through Camp Amtrak are brought in on charges of possession of stolen property, looting or violating curfew. But the vast majority of those interviewed or observed in court this week were arrested for alleged curfew violations or public intoxication.

According to documents obtained by The NewStandard, nearly 1,000 individuals have been held

[PHOTO: According to documents obtained by The NewStandard, nearly 1,000 individuals have been held at Camp Amtrak since it was established in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. © 2005 Jessica Azulay]

"The situation down there is really bad," said Don Antenen, a prisoner support activist from Cincinnati, Ohio who has been monitoring Camp Amtrak and working to secure legal support for people whose rights have been violated. "It’s not isolated from the rest of the prison system in the United States," Antenen said, "but we’re seeing all of the worst elements of the United States prison system coming all to the forefront and being very concentrated in one location."

He continued: "The police are basically arresting people for curfew violations and public intoxication and just using it as a way to get free labor to clean up the prisons and court houses and the police stations. They’re just using it as a way to get people to do their dirty work for free."

Brandon Toussaint, a black 18-year-old who spoke to TNS as he was waiting to be picked up and taken to undergo a day of punishment, said he was arrested going from the downstairs of his apartment complex to another apartment upstairs. Police charged him with violating curfew and public intoxication, and Toussaint accepted forced labor rather than a transfer to Hunts, even though he said he had been wrongly arrested. He said he was worried that he would now have a criminal record, this being his first "offense."

Toussaint said he had already done a few days of work for the police, cleaning up and painting their facilities.

"If they needed someone to clean up their city," he said, "they could have just asked."

All of the interviews quoted and conditions described by the journalist are fully documented on audio and/or videotape. Documents used were provided by Camp Amtrak officials.

The NewStandard will be running stories from correspondent Jessica Azulay in New Orleans for at least the next two weeks, as well as weblog entries provding more background about gathering this story and eyewitness testimony from sources.

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The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.


Jessica Azulay is a staff journalist.

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