Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Touring the FEMA Trailer

Six of us initially traveled to tour the FEMA trailer, and when we pulled up to the site, we all questioned whether we could all fit into the trailer at one time. The average FEMA trailer is approximately 15ft. to 20ft. long, and maybe 7ft. to 8ft wide (at most, 160 square feet). Yet it is supposed to house up to six people and all of their possessions.

Despite the size, the Katrina victim we visited was extremely welcoming and quickly moved items from her kitchen/dining/sleeping area in order to make room. We all tripped over the dog’s food and water because the only floor space available for them was right in-front of the entryway. When I first walked into the trailer, the first thing I noticed was the smell. It was the same sickly-sweet air freshener used in airplanes. When the trailer becomes too hot or too cold, and the resident turns on the air/heat, the fan is so loud that it immediately drowns out any conversation that is below the level of shouting. The fan is so strong and the trailer so small that the temperature suddenly shifts drastically in the opposite direction, so the trailer is rarely at a comfortable medium.

Immediately to the right of the front door is the “main bedroom,” which is the size of the double bed that it contains and is separated from the main room by a sliding door. On the “far” wall, directly in front of the front door is a sofa/bed meant to sleep 1 person. This sofa/bed is next to the kitchen sink and cabinets, which are directly across from the table and booths which also convert into another bed. The booth is right next to the refrigerator, which shares a wall with the bunk area, which sleeps two. The bunk area resembles shelves rather than sleeping quarters. There is a small opening for the residents to climb into the beds, and no ladder to the top bunk. The bunks share a wall with the single bathroom, and therefore, half of the bunks are completely closed off. This means a coffin-like atmosphere for anyone who is claustrophobic. The bathroom is triangular to save space, with the tub almost on top of the toilet and no room for anyone who is over 6 ft to sit down and actually close the door. The bathroom sink is located outside the bathroom, next to the kitchen sink. The isle between the kitchen sink and the dining table on the other side is no more than 2.5 ft wide, making it almost impossible to pass around someone working at the sink. Here ends the 360 degree tour of the trailer.

Moving around the trailer was an eye-opening experience. The woman we visited was extremely welcoming and kind to us, despite having her hopes dashed on several occasions. She had been promised a way out of the trailer numerous times, and each time the floor fell through. Yet she still made the best of her circumstances, a true model of the resilience of Mississippi Katrina victims.

Pre-Katrina Photos on Biloxi's Gulf Coast

Here are some photos I took while passing through Biloxi, pre-hurricane Katrina. These photos were taken in the first week of August 2005, one month before the storm. The last one is a shot of the Sharkheads Souvenir Shop, which, as you can see from the photo posted lower down in the blog, was all but completely destroyed by the storm. Additionally, for those who were on the Biloxi trip, I believe the ship in the pics below may be the floating casino that Anne (or Angela) said ended up across the highway. Neither the ship, nor the building next to it are there anymore.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Taking a break to enjoy lunch at the beach.

Erin is relaxing and inspecting the pier.

Radiance, Christine, and Erin chatting over lunch.

Relaxing in the sun.

One of the many ripped apart buildings left on the Gulf coast.

And one of the many vacant lots.

This is how most of the beach looks now.

Miss Virginia's FEMA trailer and her old house.

Ana and Jenny cleaning the last of the dishes.

Duty and Christine spent two days working on getting Miss Virginia settled in her new house.

The whole group with Miss Virginia

Melissa and some of the many dishes we cleaned Katrina mud off of.

Radiance is a pro at hanging curtains.

Veronica is really excited to put away dishes!

The final stages of getting Miss Virginia settled.

The Civil Law & Building Trips

Ana & Erin in New Orleans

The Building Trip after breakfast in New Orleans.

Biloxi, Day 4

Today may have been the most memorable day for our group thus far. The day began at the Mississippi Center for Justice office in Biloxi. After settling into the MCJ's "new" office, located in a portable trailer behind their main facility, we ate the most delicious potato doughnuts and received training for the clinic we would be participating in at 4 pm. The training was comprised of both a training DVD, put together by the MCJ, and a discussion led by Crystal Utley from the MCJ. In addition to learning about the major issues confronting the region, our training also emphasized the importance of letting the clients tell their story. While the primary goal of the clinic was to help connect individuals with Katrina related legal needs with an attorney or advocate, the clinics also helped to meet some of the therapeutic needs of the clients as well. We were able to witness first-hand how having someone to listen, someone who cared and wanted to help, gave the Katrina survivors great hope and optimism that things would get better. While were we not able to change the survivors situations, we allowed them to see a light at the end of the tunnel. For many the tunnel will be long, but just having someone willing to listen and start the process of legal assistance let our clients know that the future promised hope.

The clinic began at 4 pm at a Church rec room in Moss Point, MS. Clients began arriving promptly at 4. 1st year law students were paired with 2nd and 3rd year students, while the attorneys were on hand for issues that came up during the intake process. The primary goal of the clinic was to fill out client intake forms and identify the clients legal need's so the MCJ would be able to understand the issues and match the clients with an MCJ attorney or a national pro bono partner. As clients came in, they were matched with pairs of law students who listened to their legal problems and filled out client intake paperwork. Law students listened to problems clients were having with their FEMA trailers, trailer park closings, the Mississippi Development Authority’s "Homeowner Grants", contractor fraud, mortgage foreclosures, and rebuilding issues. While some of the problems were limited to one issue or another, others were complex and were comprised of all of issues we learned about in the MCJ training. Although many of the clients sought help on very tough situations (emotionally as well as legally), many of us law students were both surprised and inspired by both the optimism the clients had for the future and appreciation the clients felt for being alive and what they did have. This experience opened many of our eyes to the real life experiences of Katrina survivors. While we learned a great deal about the region and the aftermath of the hurricane, I think we also learned a lot about humanity and how lucky we all are to have all that we do.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Pics from the Building Trip Crew in Biloxi

The gang eats lunch on the pier on our first day of work

Bowling on the second night!

Fun times in our van

Building bunk beds for our Retreat Center on Day 3

Done for the day!

It was a special treat to get to spend our last morning in New Orleans

Tired from our awesome trip!
Naz says: Rebuilding trip rocks!

Sunday, January 13, 2008

"The Baton Rouge 10" - Monday Jan 7

In the Baton Rouge criminal justice system, excessive bail for a minor crime is considered especially heinous. In New Orleans for the week, the dedicated law students who interview these inmates and advocate for bail reductions are members of an elite squad known as "The Baton Rouge 10." These are their stories...

Monday Jan 7:
After completing the hour and a half commute from New Orleans, our group of eight 1Ls, one 2L and Prf Colbert arrived in Baton Rouge where the Director of the Public Defender’s office immediately greeted us and showed us to a small conference room that would be our base of operations for the week. He introduced us to the lead attorney and the investigators who would be our colleagues, and they began to explain how we could assist their heavily overloaded docket. Our plan was to go to the local prison after lunch and immediately begin to interview inmates.

For the next few hours we each looked over our notes from the training courses and listening to tips from the investigators and Prf Colbert. Basically our group of 1Ls got a crash course in how to interview a wide range of incarcerated individuals and how exactly to get the necessary information out of them.

As we drove over to the prison our car was eerily quiet as we each contemplated how this experience would play out. Upon arrival at the prison gates we had to each leave IDs with the guards and were only allowed to bring in a legal pad and pen and as the thick fence laced with barb wire slid open all of a sudden the experience got much more real.

Our group of soon-to-be lawyers walked toward the main building and the experience had the feeling of a movie where the main character walks into a climactic situation with a dramatic film score in the background. Although we had no such music, we did have the enthusiasm for a new situation that only law students can exude.

The inside of the prison had a little less security then I expected as eight inmates were guided to the cafeteria without handcuffs and calmly sat against the wall for Pfr Colbert to address them. While this was strange for a moment, I reminded myself that NONE of these individuals had been convicted of a crime and most in were for non-violent offenses and simply could not afford the bail. Our system can seem to favor the rich in so many situations because they have the means to post bond and rejoin their families and jobs after getting in a little trouble, but all of these people could not afford the (usually obscenely) high bail and therefore would sit in jail for 45-60 days before the District Attorney had to even decide to prosecute them or not (this is usually called DA’s time). To tell you the truth, I'm still not sure of the rationale of a system that holds (poor) people in prison for extended periods of time waiting to the DA to “get around” to your case.

Today I interviewed two men who had been in prison since late May (not officially charged by the DA until July) who could not afford their bail. As I began the interview I tried to remember as much of our training as I could and Prf Colbert and our 3L supervisor Anna Deady were amazing resources for questions and support throughout the entire process. Our goal was to get as much information from them to start a file in the PD's office with vital information such a family in the area, residence, employment, and education. This information could be used to argue in front of a judge that the bail should be reduced to an affordable level because the person was a good candidate to return to court for trial and was not a danger to the community.

As a 1L with minimal knowledge of the bail system sometimes I had trouble answering the common questions of my friends and family: Why are you doing the work you are doing? Why should people’s bail be reduced? Well for one thing the right to bail that is not excessive is guaranteed by the 8th Amendment. Thus, those charged with a crime have a constitutional right to pre-trial release upon certain circumstances. But the specific conditions of release and the bond the court requires to ensure your return is a large point of controversy in the legal community.

In total, this trip was truly amazing because it brought my head out of the theories and hypos of our legal tomes and showed us how the system actually affects people’s lives. There is more that should go into considering someone's bail then simply the nature of their crime. An important aspect is the risk that the individual will flee the community and not return for trial. This risk is determined by factors such as a supportive family in the area, a place to live, a job to go back to (or educational level to get another job), and children to support. Also we studied the individuals record of appearing for past trials as someone who never missed a court date could make a compelling argument to not miss one in the future. Other things taken in consideration is the individual’s threat to commit future crimes which can be determined from his or her criminal record.

When we left the prison at 4:30 our day was injected with a newfound sense of purpose as we knew that much work lay ahead. That evening we proceeded to make telephone calls to the family members and employers the inmates gave us to verify the information and wrote it all up in a form that would be best for the PD's office. There are some amazing tales of student interaction with family members but I will leave that up to them to tell you. Our first day offered only a preview of the challenges to come and it was a great start to a great week.

Next post... Convincing family members to come to court (while they never speak to anyone but a law student) and later, a venture into the judge's lair to advocate for our inmates.

All new episodes of the Baton Rouge 10 coming soon...