Over by the window, 8-year-old Jamisha is painting her mother's mouth, a line sloping drastically down at each end. "She feels lonely because she's in jail," Jamisha explains. She's not sure how long it's been, but she knows that she wasn't in school when her mother went in. Her grandma is raising her and most of her eight sisters and brothers -- except the brother who's in jail himself.
Terrence, age 12, is kneeling next to a canvas with his friend Charles, who's 11. They're painting a young guy wearing a stylish shirt and prominent jewelry. "This is a teenager and he was smoking rocks by the Lafitte project and the police came up and caught him," he says. Neither have anyone from their immediate family in prison, they say.
Every portrait represents an incarcerated friend, neighbor or relative. The backbone of this whole effort is three young men from the local collaborative Young Aspirations/Young Artists Inc. (YA/YA). They pour paint into cups, hand out brushes and spread out more canvases on the wood floor. Joseph A. Craig Elementary School principal Sheila Young steps into the classroom. "How many students," she asks, "know someone in prison?" All but two of the 20 hands go up into the air. She glances behind her at the YA/YA guys. "I didn't know how big our concern was, until this came up," she says.
She's referring to Critical Resistance South, an upcoming conference about the effects of prisons and incarceration. For the past year, organizers from Critical Resistance -- a group devoted to abolishing this nation's "prison-industrial complex" -- have been working with Treme residents to plan a weekend of prison-related discussion, film, theater, art and music. On Friday morning, the students' portraits will be hung on the facade of Craig school, on the St. Philip Street side. There they'll be viewed by an estimated 2,000 attendees of activists, former prisoners and families of current inmates.
Critical Resistance was launched in 1998 by 1960s Black Panther leader Angela Davis, now a Berkeley professor and writer. The group has hosted two previous conferences, both on university campuses. New Orleans organizers opted for a neighborhood site, says conference coordinator Melissa Burch. Treme seemed natural because it's been "a hotbed of organizing historically," she says.
Organizer Althea Francois says they were attracted by Treme's rich culture and its history. "People of color have always lived there -- it was not a slave community. It just felt so right."
It also felt right, says Francois, because people in Treme know the effects of prisons firsthand. They may not know the exact numbers -- that Louisiana locks up 800 out of every 100,000 people, more than any other state -- but they see the arrests and know the faces and names. "Everybody in New Orleans, especially most black people, has a loved one involved with the justice system," she says. "If they're not in prison, they're on parole or probation."
A few blocks from the Craig school, on the corner of Ursulines and Robertson streets, the usual Saturday crowd is hanging out in front of Joe's Cozy Corner. Trumpeter Kermit Ruffins, spatula in hand, cooks up a batch of hot sausage on the grill.
This hub of Treme has been run for 15 years by "Papa Joe" Glasper, who's standing in the doorway this afternoon. On the bar inside is a stack of flyers for the Critical Resistance conference. Holding it here will be "a real eye-opener," he promises. "Because the neighborhood is where you find everything out. If you want to find out what's going on, talk to me, any of us."
Talking comes easily to Henry Youngblood, 71, who wrote the brass band song "Big Fat Woman." He is one of the legends of "Craig University," he says proudly. It's the neighborhood nickname for the Craig school, because that's where you learn everything, Youngblood explains.
Youngblood hollers a wisecrack at Reginald Batiste, 38, who's sitting on the back bumper of a pickup truck. Although Batiste is not a musician himself, he comes from a well-known Treme musical family that includes bass drummer Uncle Lionel Batiste, who is Reginald's actual uncle. "Here in the Treme," he says, "you can have a band coming up the street for anything, anybody. We've had a second-line behind a damn dog around here."
Music is in the fabric of this neighborhood, he says, and now, sadly, so are prisons. Batiste hasn't served any time, was never even expelled or put out of school, he says. But he has a lot of friends in the penitentiary, mostly Angola. He remembers the time during the 1980s when drugs -- straight coke and then crack -- arrived here. "Been like that ever since," he says. "It got bad in all the major cities."
Since 1980, the Louisiana prison population has more than doubled; in the United States it's quadrupled. By the year 2000, one in 14 state dollars were being spent on corrections. That's according to a new Justice Policy Institute report, "Deep Impact: Quantifying the Effect of Prison Expansion in the South." It will be officially released Friday at the conference.
The report notes that the use of incarceration has "not been borne equally." In every Southern state, blacks are imprisoned at a rate at least four times that of whites. That comes as no surprise to Treme residents. "Go Monday morning to the (criminal) courthouse at Tulane and Broad," says Batiste, "and count how many white people you see."
A few blocks down Ursulines, at St. Claude Avenue, Mr. Preston's barbershop advertises haircuts for $10 (sorry, no credit). Inside, the walls are covered with photos of customers sitting in Preston Williams' chair, draped in the shop's light blue barber cape. "Probably a whole lot of them" have been in prison at some point, says Williams, 68. "The only thing that will change that is more jobs."
Down the street, lifelong Treme resident Dwayne Chapman, 39, has stopped to talk with some neighbor kids. "We do have role models around Treme," he says. "We have people who survive without drugs." He believes the New Orleans Police Department could be more effective if they understood that. "We need cops walking through here," he says. "If you're in this neighborhood, you pretty much know who's selling, who's using, who's not."
Locally, foot patrols have been effective, primarily in the housing projects, says Loyola University criminologist and occasional NOPD trainer Dee Wood Harper. In fact, he says, current police superintendent Eddie Compass "made his reputation" partly on the effectiveness of those patrols. That may not be possible in the Treme because of limited resources, he contends.
The resources are there, argues Todd Clear, a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. "There are individual blocks in Brooklyn," he says, "where in 1998, more than $3 million was spent incarcerating people in that year, on that block. There's a single street corner in Milwaukee where $2.5 million was spent on arresting and processing offenders in a six-month period." If the goal is making those blocks safe, he says, some of that money might be better spent on development or jobs.
Clear is known nationwide for his research on how incarceration affects neighborhoods. He explains that, in most inner-city neighborhoods, 15 percent of young men in their 20s to 40s are locked up on any given day. Removing an active criminal from the community does have an obvious benefit, says Clear. But new research by his school and others is beginning to show that removing high numbers of young men from poor neighborhoods can actually increase crime.
That's because, says Clear, it disrupts "informal social control" like this: "Joey is coming home from his school with his buddy Tommy and they're pushing each other around and it starts to get difficult. Their neighbor Sam steps out and says, 'Joey, Tommy, knock it off.' They say, 'Yes, Mr. Sam,' and they walk home."
Other ripple effects span generations, he says. For instance, the single most important predictor of whether a child will be incarcerated as an adult is parental incarceration. At a certain point, says Clear, high concentrations of incarceration act like a contagion, "almost like it's a germ that affects locations and the people that live in those locations." Parolees released to these areas have a high chance of failure.
It's no wonder parents are concerned. Near the Ursulines and St. Philip corner, a father from another prominent musical family stops his bicycle for a bowl of gumbo. One of his sons, just 20 years old, was killed two years ago, and it tore the father up. Now he and his wife are worried sick, he says, about a younger son, 18, who just got home from juvenile lockup. He needs to play his music and get a good job that he likes, says the dad. He shakes his head.
The "good job" part is tough for everyone in this neighborhood, where 44 percent of the households make less than $10,000 a year, according to U.S. Census data broken down by the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center.
A friend runs up and tells the dad to hurry down to the corner of St. Claude and Ursulines. The father hops on his bike and pedals the few blocks, only to see a squad car pulling away with his son in the back. Two squad cars remain. Guys in blue SWAT team polo shirts scour the sidewalk on Mr. Preston's block. "They haven't found anything," whispers a neighbor lady who's been watching.
The SWAT officers head back to their cars. The father rides away to tell his wife. One member of the SWAT team watches the father pedal off. The son had run from them, he said. "This kid is a dope dealer. His dad knows that. Everybody knows that."
Two years ago, Raven's daddy went away after having a fight with her mom. She's 8 now, and she has a belt at home that he made for her in the prison leather shop. On her canvas are the essentials of her dad's face. Eyes, nose, mouth.
She pauses, then adds three dots coming down from each eye. "Tears," she explains. "He misses me. He wants to come home. He wants to say sorry to my mom, apologize."
Principal Young says that the school is currently making adjustments to help these children, who are often raised by grandparents. "It's not like every kid's parent is sitting in the penitentiary," she says. "But we didn't know the numbers were this great."
Generally, schools are not considered "safe" places to talk about a parent being in prison, says Creasie Finney Hairston, dean of the Jane Addams College of Social Work at the University of Illinois in Chicago. Hairston has conducted hundreds of interviews with incarcerated parents in several different states. "Families often attempt to keep this information secret because of concern about how others may treat the child," she says. "Having a relative in prison may be a fact of life in some neighborhoods. But it's still not something that families are proud of."
Also, says Hairston, teachers receive very little training to deal with children's concerns about parental arrest, imprisonment or release. "Children go through stages of grief and acceptance," explains Hairston. Some kids withdraw, cry or act out. "Other children," she says, "begin to idolize the parent who is away or create an unrealistic view of him or her. They believe that all problems will go away once that parent comes home."
According to the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center, nearly one in four children -- almost 700 kids -- in the Treme-Lafitte neighborhood are being raised by people other than their parents. (Treme itself stretches from St. Louis Street to Esplanade Avenue and from Rampart Street to Claiborne Avenue. The Treme-Lafitte neighborhood extends the lake-side boundary to Broad Street.) There seems to be no data about how many of these children have parents in prison. That's because the U.S. Census, the best source of neighborhood-level information, specifically instructs residents on its survey forms not to include anyone who is in a correctional facility.
On a local or state level, no one is tracking actual numbers of inmates and children. At a national level, U.S. Bureau of Justice statistics (BJS) analyst Christopher Mumola used data from BJS's prison-inmate surveys in his 2000 report, "Incarcerated Parents and Their Children." In it, he reports that about half of male state prisoners (55 percent) and about two-thirds of women (66 percent) have children under 18. Those numbers, says Mumola, have stayed very stable over time and from state to state. So it's safe to estimate that there are, in the Louisiana's prisons, 34,448 fathers and 2,262 mothers with kids under 18. That's 37,300 children with a father in a Louisiana state prison and 3,500 children with a mother there.
Those numbers add up to more than 3 percent of this state's children -- and it doesn't even include the federal prison system. Nationwide, Mumola found, 7 percent of African-American children have an incarcerated parent. They are nine times more likely than white kids to have a parent behind bars. Imprisoned parents, he found, have fairly young children -- the average was 8 years old. The parents' average sentence was more than six and a half years.
Ariane is painting away on her canvas. "He got a big ol' bush," she says, painting the hair. She dips another brush. "He's bright-skinned -- red." Yet another one. "And he has light brown eyes."
"When he comes home in December, he'll go through a halfway house. Then he's going to get an apartment and we're going to move in with him," she says. It's just the four of them -- Ariane, her mother, a younger sister and an older brother, who's 15.
"My mom told my brother to stay out of trouble because one time he almost went to juvenile," she says. Her brother had been hanging out on Canal Street after the parades and the police brought him home for violating curfew.
"It was his first time," says Ariane.
CORRECTIONS: In the Home Smart 2003 Spring Resource Guide directory (March 18), we listed an incorrect name as owner of Metairie Photo and Gifts; Linda Stone has owned that business for seven years. Also, in our March 18 cover story "Fight for Independents," we incorrectly identified Girl Gang Productions as the presenter of last month's Reel Identities: The New Orleans Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Film Festival; Girl Gang Productions promoted the event, and the Lesbian and Gay Community Center of New Orleans was the presenter. Finally, in our commentary "Don't Big-box the Square," we reported that Home Depot plans to open a three-level store on the current site of the Cabildo; in fact, Lowe's has contracted with Louisiana State Museum to open a new superstore in the former Presbytere. Gambit Weekly regrets the first two errors.