Orleans Parish Prison is a sprawling, intimidating complex. It sits just a few miles from the New Orleans most us see. But it might as well be a completely different world.
While the French Quarter is famous for its beautiful architecture, amazing restaurants and energetic vibe, the complex is gray, drab, and depressing. It’s a series of buildings with broken windows, layers of razor fencing and a steady stream of young men in jumpsuits, almost all of them African-American. It’s also, according to experts who testified on behalf of the Department of Justice, the most dangerous jail in America. We were here to see what that looked like, and to try to understand why.
Minutes after the guards unlocked the gates to let in our crew, a group of female prisoners walked by our cameras and screamed allegations of assault. We were not in a position to investigate their allegations, but it set the tone for our two-day visit.
The first facility was a temporary tent, erected in 2006 to replace aging buildings damaged by Hurricane Katrina. I was struck by how clean and orderly the facility appeared on the inside. Prisoners were getting haircuts. Others were playing cards or watching television. Many more were simply laying on their beds, sleeping in the middle of the afternoon.
My first experience inside a jail was as a young reporter working in Northern Alabama, about 15 years ago. The conditions there appeared much worse to the naked eye, with hundreds of inmates crammed inside a dormitory that used to be a cafeteria, overseen by just one guard. The head of the facility allowed us in with cameras, because he was upset that state officials were not properly funding the jail.
At Orleans Parish Prison, we were only allowed inside the newest facilities. Aging buildings, almost 90 years old, still house hundreds of inmates, and most of the allegations of sexual and physical abuse stem from those old quarters. We were told that we were not allowed in this area, because a recent power outage meant they could not be sure it was "safe."
That’s where Durrell Richard was held. Originally arrested on a minor drug possession charge, Richard was not a violent criminal. After his release, agents found a couple of prescription Xanax pills inside his vehicle, and he was locked up again for violating his parole.
Richard told me in great detail about the day he was sexually assaulted in the shower. The details were so graphic, we could not include many of them in the television report. But his account was perhaps the most horrifying thing I have ever heard in my career as a reporter.
Richard seems like a strong individual. Since his release a few weeks ago, he’s been in therapy. He once worked as a hairstylist, and as a receptionist at a bank in New York City. Richard told me that he hopes to tap into those creative talents once again.
On our second day, in a dormitory built just a few years ago, we found prisoners in a reentry program. Immediately after walking in the door, a prisoner approached us, his face covered in tattoos, including teardrops -- a common gang symbol that can indicate involvement in a murder, or the loss of a friend or family member to violence. The young man welcomed us, saying he was a mentor to the other people held in the dorm.
Because of a privacy agreement with jail officials, we are not allowed to identify the man by name. He told me that he had been locked up three times in the course of his life, and that some of those crimes were violent. I was struck by his friendly nature, his admission of past wrongdoing, and his desire to do better in the future.
We talked for a good 10 minutes. He said he hopes the reentry program teaches him how to better handle his anger. When he's released in a few months, he wants to take that message back to the streets of New Orleans, one of the most homicide-ridden cities in the United States. Another prisoner quietly approached our producer and told him that in his cell, more than 100 prisoners were being held in a 66-bed room.
While some prisoners were easy to approach and wanted to share their stories, the majority wanted nothing to do with a reporter walking inside the jail. Some turned their back to us. A few moved to the back of the dorm, far away from our cameras.
I walked away with a feeling that many of those locked up at Orleans Parish Prison are people you might encounter in everyday life, on a subway, or at the supermarket. More than 80 percent haven’t been convicted of any crime, and are simply awaiting trial. What will happen when they’re released? Did they lose their jobs, or their homes, while locked up? Did they experience trauma in this place? How does life inside the most dangerous jail in America, as it’s dubbed, affect them and the people they’ll encounter, when they return to the outside?