Thursday, September 15, 2011

Lafayette, LA weighs in on crime and incarceration

It was a long drive from Auburn, AL to Lafayette, LA, but there was no better welcome than arriving to my unique accommodations at the lovely downtown Buchanan Lofts (wow! comfort, class and style, with plenty of room to spread out). With just about three hours until “showtime” I am in search of seafood gumbo (if I left Lousiana without having any, I would surely have felt deprived). Luckily, I didn’t have very far to go. My lovely landlady Leah pointed me in the direction of Don’s Seafood and Steakhouse – the perfect combination of old school, good food, and kid friendly! I’m not a food photographer, but wanted you to see a glimpse of my gumbo bowl (yum!), and another shot of my son, enjoying his French fries.

Stomachs full and ready for the night, I walk on over to the Acadiana Center for the Arts – a state of the facility in the middle of downtown Lafayette. I am in the building no more than 5 minutes and, lo and behold, an old college buddy from graduate school is there - Shawne Major! She saw the announcement on Facebook and showed up with her 11 year old daughter, Ruby, to say hello and see the film. What a nice surprise!

Following the screening, only a split second passed before the first hand went up. Gerd Wuestemann, the Center’s Director, told me that ACA audiences always have plenty of questions – this group was no exception. Most people seemed to be acquainted with one another. The exchange was comfortable and lively.

Award winning documentary filmmaker Pat Mire – Founder and Artistic Director of Cinema on the Bayou lauded ‘Concrete, Steel & Paint’ as a very important film that needs to be screened widely for public audiences. Public Defender Rebecca Hudsmith, who is also the Festival Director for Cinema on the Bayou, has a keen interest in restorative justice and extended a hand to support the film's educational outreach. A friend who attended with Pat and Rebecca approached me afterwards: “I’m a crime victim, she’s a public defender, he’s a filmmaker and my partner is a muralist – we were all represented!” The level of excitement and enthusiasm for the film was inspiring.
Pennsylvania (where I’m from) and Louisiana share two similarities regarding their incarceration statistics - they both are included in a list of only six states that have life sentences imposed without the possibility of parole, and are among the top five states with the highest number of people (more than 3,000) serving life without parole sentences.
Louisiana leads the nation in terms of the percent of its prison population serving life without parole, at 10.9 percent. In fact, it was in Louisiana that the practice first took off, and the expansion of life sentences started at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, the nation's largest maximum penitentiary, in the early 1970s, when most people sentenced to life terms were paroled after they had been deemed fit to re-enter society. Everyone in Louisiana has a 2% chance of being locked up.
The facts are troubling and the challenges are great, but change is not impossible and alternatives to punitive justice are increasingly becoming a part of the discussion. Learn more about how Louisiana is working with the VERA Institute of Justice and the Pew Center on the States to develop policy change intended to better manage prison growth, reduce expenditures in corrections and recidivism rates and increase public safety.
I felt I made some great connections in Louisiana with individuals who are interested in these issues and the film's potential to raise awareness about them. I hope we will stay in touch, and keep the conversation going!