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December 9, 2022 / Jim Fenton

Civil Rights Journey Day 5: Incarceration Justice

Welcome to Mississippi sign

Saturday, October 22, 2022

Today we are off to Jackson, Mississippi. We are also changing focus from history (enslavement) to contemporary civil rights issues. After breakfast we had a visit from three community members involved in trying to improve the criminal justice system in Louisiana. First we heard from Will Snowden of the Vera Institute. He spoke about their initiative to reduce the population in Orleans Parish jails following Hurricane Katrina from about 7200 to 1000, largely by observing the distinction between jails (typically short-term detainees awaiting trial) and prisons (long-term convicted detainees). This distinction gives long-term detainees the potential to have access to education and training programs to help them develop. Vera Institute is working more broadly to improve equity in the criminal legal system in Louisiana as well.

We then heard from Everett “Buck” Ofray and Louis Gibson, both former long-term detainees who had been convicted of second-degree murder. They described their journey from arrival at Louisiana’s notorious Angola Prison, forced to labor initially without pay and later for only 20 cents an hour. Held without parole, they had to challenge the system to obtain access to education and vocational opportunities. Eventually they worked their way into more and more responsible jobs like maintaining aircraft for the State Police. Changes in law allowed them to eventually be paroled. They described their process of re-integration into society; both are now working to assist other recent detainees. Louis is also working as a paralegal. This was truly an inspirational talk.

We then loaded into our bus for the three hour drive to Jackson, Mississippi for the next phase of our journey. We stopped along the way for a picnic lunch and to discuss what we have learned so far.

This is also homecoming weekend, a big deal in Jackson, so we expect everything to be crowded. We had dinner this evening at the Char Restaurant, again a very enjoyable meal. Tomorrow will be an early and full day, so we are turning in early.

This article is part of a series about our recent travels to the US South. To see the introductory article in the series, click here.

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