Even in the chaos that was the aftermath of Katrina, the criminal justice system ground on. Folks were arrested, and folks were released when their sentences ended. The latter group presented its own challenges in the relief effort. Consider this; many of the prisoners being released had no place to go. Their homes were gone or underwater, and their family and friends unable to come get them. It would have been passing heartless to simply release them at the door of the jail and close it shut behind them. Ex-prisoners whose homes were affected had every right to expect sheltering and support just like their neighbors.
On the night of September 20, as I was checking in for my shift, the shelter manager asked to see me and the other over-40 male volunteer. She was on the phone with the regional headquarters which was frantically trying to find staffing for a shelter they wanted to open that night. The shelter was intended for 50 released felons with no place to go. If we agreed to it, we'd be leaving immediately. The prison assured us that there would be 24/7 guards for security. The idea of an all-prisoner shelter (by this time) didn't bother either of us, at least on general principle. The problem, however, was the degree to which we could trust the officials, who'd waited till the prisoners were on the bus, and in transit, before contacting the Red Cross. It can't have been a surprise to the prison that their sentences were up. They'd have known for days, at the very least. How far could you trust them? Would the security vanish the next day, leaving us holding the bag?
We both suspected that it was an attempt to make the Red Cross responsible for their actions when they re-entered the general population.
We declined the opportunity.
Dale Austin, March 2006
All images and text Copyright Dale Austin, 1962-2008