As the U.S. celebrates Father’s Day 2017, Equal Voice News is reposting this August 2014 essay from Ernest Johnson, a New Orleans criminal justice reform advocate. He is a father and grandfather.
This year is the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer and commemorations have occurred across the country, from Mississippi to New Orleans. I have been thinking about how far as a country we have come, and how far we still have to go.
It feels like a moment to reflect on the courage of our elders and the strength and stamina of those who continue to fight for civil and human rights.
This summer, I also experienced the re-incarceration of my son, Ernest Cloud. Ernest was released from juvenile incarceration two years ago when Judge Mark Doherty ruled he had served his plea, which included the stipulation that he attend vocational training while incarcerated.
He was sent to Bridge City in 2009. He is now being sent back to finish his sentence after the Louisiana state Supreme Court ruled that he did not take advantage of vocational opportunities which the Bridge City facility did not offer.
Ernest has been fighting this legal battle since he was released. The state Supreme Court, in their decision this summer, reversed the decisions of two lower courts, both of which agreed that Ernest had fulfilled his plea agreement. These decisions were not sufficient; the prosecution continued to appeal, refusing to allow Ernest to re-start his life and try to build something positive.
In her Supreme Court dissent, Judge Bernette Johnson — Louisiana’s first Black chief justice — said the ruling was bordering on unconstitutional. She wrote: “The action of the majority undermines the very purpose of the plea agreement.”
You can read her entire dissent here. Additionally, Justice John Weimer wrote in his dissent, “The court has re-written the defendant’s plea agreement to include a condition that the juvenile participate in a program never offered to him.”
Ernest would have loved to attend vocational programs while incarcerated at Bridge City. However, the facility only offers one program (culinary arts), with space for six students at a time. When Ernest entered Bridge City, there was already a 26-student waiting list.
If the state is indeed moving toward a more holistic and skills-based model of juvenile incarceration, they certainly need to work to provide youth with more opportunities for positive development. Judge Doherty, in his original ruling, read through over 900 pages of testimony detailing the failure of the Office of Juvenile Justice (OJJ) to provide any reasonable vocational or academic resources for Ernest.
The Advocate, the news company, has provided a detailed summary of these arguments.
The 900 pages also document, in my opinion, the widespread incompetence of the Office of Juvenile Justice. There is an unconstitutional lack of programming in all facilities. Staff are untrained and underpaid, and there is a high turnover rate. Staff have complained repeatedly about poor communication and lack of stable leadership.
Families are stressed and confused about the status of their children and can’t get any answers from OJJ. One parent I work with stated her son had over 20 case workers in a five-year period and no transition plan upon release. Another stated that family counseling was 10 minutes long and took place over the phone.
Most often, I hear tales of parents who can’t visit their incarcerated children because they live in Shreveport but their child is incarcerated in Bridge City, over 300 miles away.
These issues put youth — including youth who genuinely want to change and get help — in jeopardy of getting further entrenched in the prison system instead of moving toward productive and safe futures.
OJJ just had a groundbreaking for a new facility in Bunkie and has detailed plans for a new one on the old Jetson site. Why are we building new facilities that will not have adequate programs for all children?
Bricks and fences do not create adequate reform.
Less than an hour after the state Supreme Court verdict, Ernest was back at Bridge City in a bed that had been waiting for him. Yet there are many other youth across the state held in detention centers for months waiting to get into OJJ custody.
For some of them, their release date depends on how soon they can get a bed. Ernest was mandated to attend an 18-month vocational program while incarcerated. Never mind that he had been attending vocational training while free. Never mind that he had a new week-old son.
This is a stark example of a larger pattern in which we blame individuals for the failures of institutions.
The institution did not provide vocational training but Ernest, who was 16 at the time of his original incarceration and has a diagnosed learning disability, finds the blame rests on him. He is the one who is punished — not the Bridge City directors, the adults who failed to provide his court-ordered services.
The recidivism rate is high and we blame individuals for a lack of morals instead of looking to the prisons and their failed programs of rehabilitation and safety. We look at the dropout rate, or suspension rates, and we blame students for “not wanting to learn.”
Instead, we should critique the schools that are not teaching them or engaging them or allowing them to flourish.
We look at the unemployment rate, or the welfare rolls, and we say, “Those people are lazy.”
Instead, we should demand change in the inadequate training programs, the low minimum wage, the lack of affordable child care and the barriers to employment because of criminal offenses or lack of documentation.
Ernest is only one person.
But he is symbolic of the failures of the juvenile justice system at large, which targets Black boys from the outset. Black youth are disproportionately diagnosed with learning disabilities, suspended and expelled from schools, arrested by the police and put in secure care facilities.
Too many people use this as an excuse to focus blame on Black culture and families. We want to believe we live in a fair society where everyone is allotted the same rights and freedoms, is promoted based on their merit and is responsible for their individual actions.
However, just as the Jim Crow racism of 1964 is glaringly obvious to us now, so too will this institutional racism shine embarrassingly bright in the future. When we think of institutional and generational violence, we need look no further than to Ernest’s week-old son, who now will spend the first formative two years of his life denied his father by the state.
The need for civil rights workers remains strong. We must demand and create institutions that meet the needs of all our families, regardless of race or class or gender. We must understand that our freedom and our accomplishments are inextricably linked to the freedom and accomplishments of our neighbors.
As we look back at the heroic work of Freedom Summer, I hope we also think of my son, Ernest Cloud, and all our friends, children, parents, and community members who will spend this summer, and many summers, unjustly behind bars.
Ernest Johnson is director of Ubuntu Village, a New Orleans-based community organization that seeks to provide social, economic and transformative justice to youth and families. Equal Voice News first shared his essay on Aug. 26, 2014. He is also a board member for Equal Voice Action, a family-led membership organization focused on social and economic equity. All photos are from Ubuntu Village.