On Christmas morning, Blakk has a special call to make. He claimed dibs on the wall phones the day before so that he’d be first in line when the phone system turns on at 7 a.m.
The phones aren’t yet operable when the early-morning sunlight pierces through the thick glass windows, waking him. He hears the TV news click on, volume still low. It’s 6 a.m. in the Orleans Justice Center, better known as the Orleans Parish Prison, or OPP.
He climbs out of his bunk. “Who’s next in the shower?” he calls out. Another early riser in a nearby bunk knows the order. “Me, then K.J., then Roddie,” he says.
“Okay,” Blakk says. “Then I’ll go after Roddie.”
I am a reporter in New Orleans who covers criminal justice stories, and because the city is relatively small, people often connect me with their loved ones in jail. Over the course of six months, in 15-minute increments allowed by the jail’s phone system, Blakk and I spoke about his daily life and his determination to stay connected to loved ones. I’m using his nickname because he says he’s heard of other incarcerated men punished for talking to journalists.
On this early morning in December, Blakk walks past rows of bunks covered in gray and blue blankets as he heads toward the phones, he says. One of the deputies marks the day by handing out candy canes on his rounds.
Blakk unwraps the cellophane from the peppermint cane and stares out the window at the Broad Street bridge, which passes over multiple lanes of Interstate 10. For some of the guys on the tier, it’s therapeutic to watch the constant flow of traffic, moving west and east, in and out of the city. It helps them remember how it felt to be free, driving that stretch of road.
At first, Blakk felt fortunate to be in a tier with windows. But he spent so much time watching the highway that he felt as if he were seeing the same cars travel past each day. That got depressing. “It reminded me that I am in here and they are out there living life, doing everyday things like going to work,” he says.
Every year, millions of tourists travel to New Orleans to eat seafood platters, shake their butts on Bourbon Street and put aside their cares for a weekend or a week, immersing themselves in the city’s celebrated Black culture—its second-line parades, brass bands and Mardi Gras Indians. But for those who carry the torch for that culture, carefree days can be scarce. Nearly one in three Black people in New Orleans live below the poverty line. And at every step of the justice system, studies show that Black defendants face disproportionate challenges. According to a 2012 Times-Picayune analysis, one in 14 Black men from New Orleans were behind bars, and one in seven were on probation or on parole.
In some neighborhoods, almost every Black family has someone who has served time.
“That’s a normal thing for us in New Orleans,” Blakk says. “Normal, but not normal.” One after another, he counts them off on his fingers: cousins, brothers, uncles and friends who landed in jail at some point.
But for those who carry the torch for that culture, carefree days can be scarce.
Blakk’s own connection to the Orleans Parish Prison started 35 years ago, when his mother brought him and his sister here once a week.
“I was kind of young,” Blakk recalls. “It was a happy time for me. I used to think my dad was just at work. They would tell me that, but it was kinda weird. Because I wouldn’t see him at home, only at work.”
As he got older, it became clear. “Wait—it was jail. He was in jail.”
Although Black men ages 15 to 84 make up only 26 percent of the city’s population, they account for more than 80 percent of the New Orleans jail’s population, according to an analysis by the Vera Institute in 2017.
In researching a 300-year history of the jail, Andrea Armstrong of Loyola University Law School found that, until the mid-1900s, people incarcerated in Orleans Parish Prison received crucial supplies of food and clothing through families, who brought dinner or a change of clothes to the prison doors.
Armstrong concluded that the criminal justice system has had disproportionate effects on the city’s Black community for generations. “Money that goes to jail phones and commissary and bail bonds could be spent elsewhere,” she said. “Plus, those sitting in jail are wage earners lost from our communities, along with people who care for our sick family members and help to raise our children.” In New Orleans, she added, “even the ability to afford first homes is related to incarceration in families.”
Blakk’s family is sprawling but tight-knit: he estimates that he spends 90 percent of non-work hours with his extended family. “We mean so much to each other that it really hurts them to have me in here,” he says. Family members yearn to stay in touch but struggle to keep up with their own bills while trying to put commissary money on his books and paying for his calls from the jail, which run $3.42 per 15-minute local call. Even one short call per day ends up running $100 per month, not including fees and taxes.
The clear, sealed plastic packages of commissary that are delivered to the tiers on Tuesdays and Fridays can run an additional $100 per week. Blakk feels fortunate to get someone to put $25 or $50 on his books each week. For him, orders are usually heavy on potato chips, along with a few Honey Buns, a week’s worth of individual packets of hazelnut instant coffee, a bag of root beer barrels and a bag of lemon drops. They’re his comfort foods. They help him relax. “You have to find your diet in here,” he says, “and go with it.”
Blakk has been locked up for 18 months, waiting for a chance to clear himself on what he says are unjust charges related to a pre-pandemic murder. Though he has been arrested before on a few drug-related charges, it’s different this time, because the COVID-related delays have slowed his case to a crawl. Because of high numbers of positive cases, deputies didn’t take him to his first 2022 court date in January; the hearing was pushed back a few months, to a date that he fears might be reset again.
It’s been about eight months since Blakk was able to appear in court in person. During the pandemic, most hearings have taken place over Zoom, from a room in the jail where he’s unable to confer privately with his public defender. “It’s all really confusing,” he says. “I feel like I don’t really understand what’s going on with my case.”
At this rate, he fears that he may still be in custody on his 40th birthday. But it’s the idea of missing his oldest daughter’s graduation that bothers him the most. “That’s all we used to talk about,” he says. “And now I may not see it happen.”
He looks up and sees the clock reach 7:00. He picks up one of the heavy receivers and dials.
Since his mother’s dementia set in, he never knows what to expect. But she answers. “Mama, it’s me,” he says. “Merry Christmas.”
“Same to you, baby,” she says. Some days, she’s still her witty self. His nephew told him just the other day that she had called him at work, to ask who Kanye West was. She just wanted someone to talk to, they decided.
Before he went into custody, he could always connect with her by passing by her house. “She might not have cooked for days,” he says. “But if she sees me, if I show up at her door, she’ll remember she can cook. She’ll go in the kitchen, get out the pots, and she’ll cook me my favorite meal. The best meal you ever had.”
While they ate, they would catch up. “We’d be talking,” he says. “I’d be looking at her and she’d be looking at me. And then, in the middle of it, she’d forget who I was.”
It’s impossible now for him to know if she’s really okay because he can’t see her face, even through visitation-booth glass. That’s because there are no longer any visitation spaces in his building. Since the new jail opened in 2015, inmates in New Orleans have been limited to video visitation. Next to the complex’s parking lot is a small shed where visitors can go once a week. There, they sit in front of video monitors for their allotted 15 minutes, speaking to loved ones who walk up to the monitors in their tiers, wearing orange jumpsuits, who often strain to hear the voices of children or elderly relatives because of the noise of the surrounding jail tier.
It’s impossible now for him to know if she’s really okay because he can’t see her face, even through visitation-booth glass.
Across the country, COVID-19 has prompted many prisons to temporarily stop in-person visits. But in New Orleans, there are no visiting days—the new jail was built without a space for them.
By contrast, the old jail complex had a parade of regular visitors who came to see several thousand incarcerated people. During the 1980s and 1990s—a get-tough-on-crime era, especially in Louisiana—Charles Foti, then the sheriff of Orleans Parish, presided over a building boom that expanded the jail’s space by a factor of 10.
The work started in earnest in the mid-1970s, prompted by inhumane conditions in prisons run by the state of Louisiana, whose per-capita incarceration rate had long been the highest in the nation. In 1971, a group of Louisiana prisoners had sued the state over conditions at Angola Penitentiary, viewed by many as the country’s bloodiest prison. A few years later, after hearings in the matter, a federal judge paused all admissions to Angola. Local courts could still convict defendants, but they couldn’t send anyone to Angola, the state’s only maximum- security prison. State prisoners piled up in jails across Louisiana.
By 1980, Foti was so upset about the state’s role in his over-capacity jails—he was also facing his own lawsuit over inhumane conditions and overcrowding—that he carted 147 state prisoners he deemed “dangerous” from his jail in New Orleans to a parking lot outside a state prison. In response, the secretary of the state’s Department of Corrections got a temporary restraining order against the sheriff, who could no longer “send, transfer or deposit” Orleans prisoners upon state prison grounds.
Foti soon hit upon his own solution: expanding the inventory of jail beds. Louisiana then paid him a per diem fee to keep thousands of its state prisoners. Using the labor of those he incarcerated, Foti retrofitted or rebuilt a vacant motel, fire station, lumber company, office building and elementary school. When he ran out of room for more construction, he took over a neighborhood park and turned it into a tent city. In response to complaints from neighbors who were now surrounded by razor wire, Foti boasted to a Times-Picayune reporter, “No one in the United States has used this kind of creativity to increase inmate capacity without a funded jail-construction program.”
In 2004, the year after Foti left office, bed space “rent” from the state totaled $20 million, and his sprawling complex included 7,524 beds, making it the nation’s ninth-largest jail, far out of proportion with the size of the city.
• • •
Even though it’s Christmas Day, Blakk’s mother’s voice is cracking. She’s been crying. Blakk’s older sister has just landed in the hospital with an allergic reaction, she says. She’s worried. He is, too.
Blakk’s sister is disabled. She’s 10 years older than her brother, but the two are extremely close.
“Every picture taken of me in childhood was with her,” he says.
As they got older, her condition got a little worse. She started not going outside, unless he was there. Now, with him locked up, she wants to stay with their mother. Occasionally, Blakk panics when thinking about it. “What if Mama forgets to feed her?” he thinks.
Right now, though, he has to focus on calming his mom. “Do you want me to send someone down there to check on her?” he asks. She doesn’t know. She just doesn’t know, she says.
An automated voice booms into their earpieces, telling them they have one minute remaining in their call. The voice seems to jar her back from her anxiety. She knows exactly who she’s on the phone with.
“I’m sorry, sugar,” she says. “You know them people holding you unnecessarily.”
“I know,” he tells her. “But everything is gonna be okay, I promise. Love you, Mama.”
His 15 minutes are up. The line goes dead. He hangs up the phone, walks back to his bunk and sits silently, his head in his hands.
• • •
Whenever Kenneth Brown called collect from the jail, he’d simply crow—“Cockadoodledoo!”—when prompted to give his name for the recording that notifies the call’s recipient who is calling them. His mother, Rosa Brown, dubbed him Rooster as a young child because he always woke up early.
In 2021, at age 43, he was booked into OPP—again. It was his latest drug-related charge. To jail personnel, he was what they called a “frequent flyer.” In the past, he had been arrested for armed robbery, burglary and theft. It was always related to his need to score drugs: cocaine or heroin or marijuana. He also sought out mojo, the synthetic weed, though he often blacked out after smoking it.
Several years ago, Brown got into a fight outside a store in his neighborhood. He was, by far, the littler guy, but he didn’t back down. He got hit in the head so hard that he started having seizures. Likely a traumatic brain injury, doctors said. One night in jail, he felt one of his seizures coming on. He started pressing a help button, but no one came. Guys from nearby bunks tried to assist him, putting something in his mouth to hold down his tongue so he wouldn’t choke. But the seizure was severe and lasted a long time. They weren’t sure he was going to survive. Brown made it through, and the next day, he filed a written complaint over his lack of treatment. But instead of getting a full medical workup, he was transferred to a tier that he says was filled with men accused of murder and other high-level violent crimes. He was also assigned to a top bunk. Fearing another night seizure, he took the mat off his bunk and slept on the floor. To him, the transfer felt like retaliation.
Much of the discussion about the treatment of prisoners in New Orleans concerns the provision of medical and mental- health care for incarcerated people like Brown. Several years ago, Sheriff Marlin Gusman oversaw the construction of a 1,438-bed facility, to replace what had flooded in 2005 as faulty levees broke across the city during Hurricane Katrina. The idea was to use one building to downsize: to replace the 12 buildings left over from Foti’s time and slash the number of inmates by 80 percent.
A year before Katrina, Gusman had taken office, inheriting the sprawling jail campus and all of its beds, where some people in custody were stranded in locked cells as floodwaters rose, then evacuated to state prisons across the state, with little official paperwork to identify them. It was a well-documented fiasco: nearly a year later, defense attorneys were still bringing some of the evacuated inmates to court for the first time. Afterward, as Gusman attempted to rebuild a jail with 4,300 beds, the mayor formed a working group to determine what bed space was necessary. Critics took Gusman’s proposed bed count to task. “If you build it, they will fill it,” was a common protest sign, reflecting the prevailing sentiment that jail space drives policy. And because the sheriff received a per-diem payment for every prisoner he kept, critics paid for a billboard that read “Stop jailing people to make money.”
After Katrina, it became clear that New Orleanians didn’t have the appetite to simply rebuild the gargantuan jail and the rest of the city’s wretched criminal-justice system. In 2011, after much public debate, city officials voted to allow Gusman to build the smaller jail along with a sleek new industrial kitchen and warehouse. But somehow, the new jail was built without adequate room for inmate medical care. Jail planners also left an empty lot between the new kitchen and jail on Perdido Street. Gusman initially wrote off the lot as “a little green space,” then proposed it as the site for a hoped-for expansion called Phase III. Though early Phase III proposals estimated a need for 380 to 778 beds, the proposal’s current incarnation would provide 89 beds, an infirmary and appropriate spaces for psychiatric patients.
After Katrina, it became clear that New Orleanians didn’t have the appetite to simply rebuild the gargantuan jail and the rest of the city’s wretched criminal-justice system.
City officials have twice shut down construction on the Phase III building, opting to retrofit the existing jail. But in 2019, a federal judge ruled that Phase III was necessary to resolve “a dire and exigent situation regarding the housing and treatment of mentally ill prisoners.”
In December 2021, jail expansion became a key electoral issue as candidate Susan Hutson, a former Independent Police Monitor for the city, attracted 53 percent of the vote, squeaking past Gusman, a 17-year incumbent. Hutson emphasized that she saw no need for the “extremely costly, and unnecessary” Phase III; there was sufficient space within the current structure to retrofit, she said. Her term was set to begin in May 2022.
Because of the ways in which the jail and its residents are knit together with the rest of the city, Andrea Armstrong, the law professor who tracks correctional conditions and in-custody deaths, believes that oversight of conditions and policies should be led by people from over-policed, over-jailed neighborhoods. “They know how it impacts our communities when people in jails are deprived of sufficient food and nutrition, healthcare, contact with their loved ones—and even the ability to summon help when needed.”
Examining those everyday deprivations raises larger questions, Armstrong said. For instance: “What is the societal bargain that we’ve made in New Orleans around incarceration? And do we all pay the same price?”
Another, larger question—also an issue in the recent sheriff’s race—is the size of meals. New Orleans is a food town: servings at meals are usually big, and the jail’s cooking used to reflect this.
These days, the only meal that gets across-the-board praise is on Mondays, when the jail’s kitchen makes red beans, served with sausage, cornbread, string beans and cake or a cookie. On other days, the portions are much smaller.
The pre-Katrina system was imperfect. Guys who did time during that era remember how the food was delivered in big pans and dished up by tier reps. Back then, if a family member put money on his books, he might use it to buy incidentals, like candy or coffee. Or cigarettes, which are no longer allowed. That’s changed. “Now, commissary is a necessity,” says Blakk, who had worked in OPP’s kitchen during a short pre-Katrina drug-possession sentence. “Without it, you starve, basically.”
Luckily, Blakk has a group of childhood friends who back him, along with a deep bench of aunts, nieces and cousins. Men in nearby bunks without the means to get “store” might beg an uneaten piece of bread off another guy’s plate, just trying to stave off hunger, he says.
The food’s arrival times from the new kitchen are also mysterious. Blakk tells me that all meals for the day are delivered within a 12-hour period, with no food during the remaining 12 hours. On Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, a hot breakfast usually arrives around 3:30 a.m. but sometimes as early as 2 a.m. Then a cold dinner is delivered by 3 or 3:30 p.m.
“When breakfast arrives, it might be 2:30 in the morning, but you haven’t eaten since the previous afternoon,” Blakk says. “So you get up, because your body knows it’s time for feed-up.” Some of his tier-mates try to save food for later, but constant swarms of fruit flies usually ruin it.
During his stints in and out of jail, Kenneth “Rooster” Brown was known as an early riser—true to his lifelong nickname—who followed the news closely, starting with the 6 a.m. broadcast. He read up on the federal consent decree governing the jail and knew that his lack of care was a pattern.
To his mother, those details were a secondary concern. “If I heard him complaining about the jail,” she said, “I would ask him, ‘Why do you keep going back there?’”
She said she tried her best, despite his active addiction. If she heard he was homeless, she’d send his friends to tell him to come to her house. She took him to the hospital once and was told that the records showed he had been there 18 times within the same month, complaining about the same maladies and wanting prescriptions. She asked him about the pain inside him that he was trying to deaden. Was it because of the death of his sons’ mother? Or the new girlfriend who left him?
She doesn’t know. “He never opened up to me,” she said.
After Brown filed a complaint with the jail, he was proud to be clean of drugs for a few weeks, said a man who was held on the same tier. To those within earshot, Brown seemed adamant about pursuing the matter with a civil rights lawyer. In a phone call on March 3, 2021, placed about an hour before he walked out of the front door of the jail, Brown pledged that, if he had anything to do with it, no one else would ever experience the same lack of care.
Eight days later, he was found in his apartment, dead from an overdose. “God just called him home,” his mother said.
• • •
It’s Sunday night, and I am pushing a shopping cart through a grocery store when Blakk calls me with a very specific request: “Good evening,” he says. “Can you Google this: when did Drew Brees first pass more than 5,000 yards a season?”
“Google says 2008 was first,” he says loudly, speaking above a crowd gathered by the tier’s two TVs to watch the Saints game. It’s the happiest time of the week in the jail, he says.
In the background, another voice is contesting Google’s findings, although the words are unintelligible over the phone.
Blakk comes back on the line, asking if Brees had ever hit 5,000 yards in passing when he was with the San Diego Chargers. Standing by a pile of green peppers, I Google the question, then answer no. Blakk makes the noise of a loud game show buzzer that indicates a wrong answer. “All right, thanks,” he says. Then he hangs up.
Blakk is engaging in trivia challenges and discussion about the news nearly every day to keep his mind sharp. It’s too easy to let days just melt into each other—for himself and for the other guys he looks out for, similar to the old OPP system that placed certain inmates in supervisory roles, as tier reps, to dish up food, disburse and collect grievance forms and generally keep the peace. It’s a practice that continued until 2012, when the US Department of Justice condemned the tier rep structure for taking the place of trained security staff.
“It’s easy to get down in here,” Blakk says. “We all get depressed, so we have to look out for each other.”
Phone conversations also do something for him. He laughs for 15 minutes straight whenever he calls his cousin Smelly, a true comedian. One day, Smelly told him that one of their cousins had opened a car wash and was doing nice work. “You know, that’s cuz he’s got such big eyes,” Smelly says. “He can probably stand across the street and still see a piece of dust left on a car.”
For Blakk, phone calls are even more of a necessity because of the pandemic. During the Omicron variant’s surge, guys throughout his tier were testing positive. And on the outside, half of the people he called had COVID. Blakk is especially worried about his girlfriend, A.—“my day one”—whose health is fragile to the point where she sometimes has to pull over the Uber she’s driving because her leg is shaking so much.
When no one has the time or money to accept his calls, Blakk’s mood gets low in a way he can’t hide. “On those days, I have no patience, no understanding,” he says. “Every little thing that people do gets on your nerves.”
When his people accept his calls and he’s able to catch up, he feels better. “My energy be different,” he says. “I know my people are okay.”
The calls remind him about the rhythms of life, he says. One day in January, his younger brother Lemur held a niece’s baby boy who gurgled and cooed as the two of them talked.
As often as he can, Blakk calls his son, who just turned 10. Before the arrest, he was his dad’s constant companion. “It’s my penalty for being in the wrong place, wrong time,” Blakk tells him, trying to explain the situation as best way he can. “If I had been around you at the time, maybe this wouldn’t have happened.”
His two daughters, both teenagers, try to be helpful. “They tell him, ‘He’s gonna be okay. He’s gonna come home,’” Blakk says. “They’ve been through this before with other family members, so they know how this works.” On a sunny evening in February, Blakk reaches his closest niece while she’s outside walking with her young daughter, who had just tested positive for COVID. The little girl gets on the phone and says, “Hello, Uncle Blakk.” She is caring for her sick doll right, she says, describing what the doll looks like, as if to jog his memory. He should already know its name, she says.
He takes a few guesses. “No. No. That’s not it,” she says, before revealing the name. He laughs and jots down the words “Sparkle Cupcake” on his legal pad, the one where he writes all his phone numbers. “Okay, I got it,” he says. “I won’t forget it again.”