December 19, 2005

Lives fall through system's cracks: Lawyers make it a mission to clear cases
Kayla Gagnet (

For two months, James Mitchell has been lost in the prison system.

He isn't even supposed to be in jail anymore. His 20-day sentence was set to expire Sept. 1. But on that day, he and thousands of other inmates were fighting fear and floodwaters in Orleans Parish Prison after Hurricane Katrina.

Now, he's in the Lafayette Parish Correctional Center. He's there in person, but not on paper, according to the Louisiana Department of Corrections.

Mitchell was released Oct. 3, a corrections lawyer said in court Dec. 6.

But on Dec. 8, there he was, sitting at a table in the tiny arraignment courtroom at Lafayette's parish prison. The mixup was discovered when a Daily Advertiser reporter interviewed him that day and alerted lawyers.

He is convinced another James Mitchell has been released in his stead.

"When we were here about two weeks, a guy came in and he wanted information from the people who came from New Orleans. When he got to my name, my name had a line drawn through it, with 'Released' on there," Mitchell said. "This kind of, like, haunted me."

Roughly 8,000 prisoners were evacuated during Hurricane Katrina, and Mitchell's case is just one example of the confusion that has come after the storm.

In the months since the storm, recent arrestees have been out of touch with their families, who could possibly bond them out, and have not had easy access to a lawyer. Pre-trial inmates had to get in touch with their attorneys, and their court appearances were postponed indefinitely. Prisoners whose sentences had expired were not released, because many of the local prisons didn't have access to individual inmates' court records.

With hundreds of tragedies in the wake of the hurricane, the prisoners' ordeal has been largely overshadowed.

"The public is not immediately concerned about the plight of prisoners," said Alexandria criminal defense lawyer Phyllis Mann. "At least, not until someone explains more about exactly who these people are and how they are being denied our most basic rights - the right to have your day in court, the right to a lawyer, the right to fairness and justice."

Help, in habeas corpus

A handful of attorneys from across the state, at Mann's urging, volunteered to interview the inmates held in their local prisons.

"When we did that, we went 'Oh, my God, there's a real problem here,'" Mann said. "There were people at that time who literally were in jail for not paying their speeding ticket and should not have been there at all."

The sometimes heartbreaking stories that Mann heard prompted her to join forces with Baton Rouge lawyer Julie Kilborn and three attorneys from New Orleans. In mid-September, the lawyers started filing petitions for writs of habeas corpus - or requests that the state Department of Corrections show cause why a person is incarcerated.

In November, the Louisiana Supreme Court appointed Orleans Parish Chief Judge Calvin Johnson to hear the cases in a Baton Rouge courtroom.

So far, the lawyers have requested the release of roughly 1,150 prisoners.

One of those was James Mitchell, the prisoner who officials thought had been released until an interview proved he was still in jail.

Kilborn, who was alerted about the mixup by a Daily Advertiser reporter, has since asked the state Department of Corrections to fix the error and release Mitchell. As of Sunday, he remained in LPCC.

The judge has ordered a total of 400 inmates released, and the lawyers plan to ask for the release of another 230 prisoners this week. They hope to have filed all their petitions for release by the end of the month.

"It's worth our time, and it's certainly worth it for the people who are sitting in jail," Kilborn said.

Prosecutors typically have 60 days from an arrest to accept or deny charges for felony cases. That deadline would have expired sometime in October for most arrests made just before the storm. But, a Supreme Court ruling extended the deadline to Jan. 6, meaning some people may remain in jail for five months or more without ever being charged with a crime.

Mann and Kilborn said they never expected to be working nearly around-the-clock on a volunteer basis, but someone has to look out for the prisoners.

"It was one of those situations, where, no, we didn't set out to represent the entire jail population ... but there was never a point where you could turn your back," Mann said.

One example of success

New Orleans inmate Austin Manning, 19, hadn't spoken to a lawyer during his four months in jail. He was arrested for possession with intent to distribute marijuana.

The group of volunteer lawyers requested his release, and Johnson granted it Dec. 6. Manning got out of Lafayette Parish Correctional Center a few days later.

"They got a lot of evacuees I came here with that deserve to be gone, too," Manning said while still in prison. "And, they might not be able to get released on their own recognizance because of prior charges, but they too haven't been charged with anything. It's like, if I get released, that's good, but if we all get released, that's when I'll really feel good."

He wants to start his life over in Dallas, to get away from the city of bad memories. He's still haunted by his experience in prison.

"A lot has been taken from me. I've missed a lot of my life," Manning said.

James Mitchell has missed a lot, too; his original 20-day sentence has turned into more than 120 days.

His charge: criminal trespassing.

On his wrist he wears a reminder of this offense. It's a yellow band, waterlogged from the flood, with his name in faded marker. In New Orleans, misdemeanor offenders got yellow bands. Felony offenders got orange ones, and capital offenders got red.

Mitchell can't bring himself to take it off.

"I don't only speak for myself - it's other guys that's here with crimes like drunk in public, trespassing," Mitchell said. "I'm not a judge or anything, but really, we're getting the shaft."