January 15, 2006

Former prisoner rebuilds life: Man released after being lost in Katrina chaos
Kayla Gagnet (

James Mitchell is starting over.

New home, new job, new life in Lafayette.

But he's about four months behind the thousands of other Hurricane Katrina
evacuees who began settling here last fall.

That's because Mitchell spent 112 days wrongfully imprisoned in the
Lafayette Parish Correctional Center as a result of a paperwork glitch after
the chaotic evacuation of more than 7,000 inmates from Orleans Parish

"The system, to me, is messed up," Mitchell said this week while taking a
break from splitting logs at his new job in Scott. "But what really helped
me to forgive everything about it was the (emergency) situation."

For weeks, Mitchell was lost in the prison system - corrections officials
thought he had been released, but he in fact remained in jail, serving far
more than his original 20-day sentence for criminal trespassing.

He was released Dec. 22 after a reporter from The Daily Advertiser pointed
out the mix-up to volunteer lawyers working to free the thousands of New
Orleans inmates in jail for minor offenses but without charges.

Mitchell knew he wasn't supposed to be in jail, but he was without the
resources, such as a lawyer or a local family member, to get out. His
frustration mixed with his determination to find a way to start over in

He remembers the day, Dec. 21, when a sheriff's deputy told him his time had
finally come to leave.

"I heard it, but you know how you hear things but you can't really believe
it's happening," Mitchell said.

Since then, Mitchell bounced between area homeless shelters and new friends'
homes as he tried to get back on his feet. On Friday, he got a place of his
own - a room at an Evangeline Thruway hotel, funded by the Federal Emergency
Management Agency.

He'll stay there for a month while Christopher Hughes, his caseworker at
Acadiana Outreach Center, helps him find an apartment.

Hughes has helped lead Mitchell through the complicated aid application
process, and he said FEMA has been closely scrutinizing requests for help so
long after the storm.

"But they understand that people are still in need," Hughes said.

Mitchell's job working in the yard at Acadiana Tree and Fence Services,
making $8 an hour, also is temporary. He plans to work just long enough to
afford steel-toed boots, gloves and coveralls. In that other life, before
the storm, Mitchell worked offshore, and he needs his own gear before he can
get started.

He considers himself lucky that the massive prison reshuffling landed him

"Lafayette, if it ain't nothing else, it's oilfield oriented," Mitchell

Even while he still was in prison, Mitchell was quizzing other inmates about
job possibilities. That mission kept him going, even when he wasn't sure how
long he'd be in jail, he said.

"I try to work and get my own. If I need help, yes, I appreciate you doing
it ... but I was always taught to get my own," Mitchell said.