The Orleans Public Defenders (OPD) was created in 2007 to provide criminal defense to people who could not afford attorneys in the New Orleans Parish. OPD offers eligible clients free criminal legal representation, and it is the only provider that does so. The Mississippi Project has been sending delegates to the Public Defenders’ office since it opened. This year, Dalourny Nemorin and I (Maria Fernanda DeCastro) were the Mississippi Project’s representatives at OPD.

We really didn’t know what to expect going down to New Orleans to assist the OPD in its mission to provide representation to indigent clients; we knew that the interns last year had helped individual attorneys in the office with their case work. We had hoped that through the work we would get to meet people in the New Orleans community who are dealing with criminal justice issues and working towards solving some of the social inequalities that people in New Orleans are dealing with. 

Once we arrived at the office, it became very clear that the organization’s attorneys rely on volunteers like ourselves to help with their massive workload. Dalourny and I worked jointly on several assignments, and also worked separately on two research projects. Dalourny researched issues related to the disclosure of Brady material by prosecutors around the country, and I worked on researching issues related to the criminal justice system’s provision of indigent client representation. I also had the opportunity to prepare a guide manual for attorneys to use while on intake duty.

I really enjoyed working at the Public Defenders’ Office, and I think our placement  really did benefit the attorneys working there. It helped me to see the how my legal education can actually be used in practice to make a difference! 

I was nervous about going to work with the Mississippi Workers Center for Human Rights, because I had never been to Mississippi, and I had never done any legal work since starting law school. The Workers Center is an advocacy organization that provides organizing support, and training for low wage, non-union workers in Mississippi.

Along with 7 other current 1L and 2L’s, I was welcomed with open arm by Jaribu Hill, founder of the workers center and CUNY alum of ’93. Right away, we entered into Mississippi politics- we spent the first day at the capitol, getting to meet everyone from state senators to the folk in the Occupy Jackson movement.

Once back in Greenville, MS, the 8 of us split up a few of the myriad of projects that the Workers’ Center handles, from researching new voter registration laws, housing rights in Mississippi, workers compensation information to be given to senators, to helping Jaribu get an awesome public service announcement about workers’ needs on local TV.

There ended up a million things I learned from my time in Greenville, but I think the biggest thing is how important it is to take time to learn the place where you want to work. Jaribu is many things- advocate, attorney, actor- but she is also a great guide and teacher. She often insisted that we take time to actually get to know Mississippi- whether it be through having dinner with the head of Mississippi’s ACLU, or taking time and going to the Emmitt Till  Historic Intrepid Center in Glendora, MS.

A lot of our time in the Delta was spent really understanding what kind of work is needed in Mississippi, and also how our work was going to impact folks’ lives. It is irresponsible to try and work with people if you don’t even try and understand where they are coming from. I am not pretending to understand all of Mississippi, I think it could maybe take a life time to understand it, if that even a possible feat. Mississippi has a lot of intricacies- racism is alive and well there, and it lives along side a rich and present history of people of color’s liberation struggles.

Personally, I am so glad to have had an opportunity to be part of that history, if even for just two weeks. The connection that I’ve made with Mississippi will for sure live much longer than that.

One of the most amazing experiences of interning at the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana was working with the youth of BreakOUT! These young people identify as LGBTQ and have had their lives informed or influenced by the criminal justice system. These experiences range from interactions with the foster care system, incarceration, routine harassment or abuse, and the daily policing of gender expression and sexuality.

While we were in New Orleans, two transgender people were murdered. The youth of BreakOUT! responded to these losses by holding a vigil and creating this video. This video, "We Deserve Better" created and conceived of by the youth makes the clear connection between institutionalized violence within the New Orleans Police Department and the violence faced at the hands of strangers, family, and friends.

The video can be viewed here.

The New Orleans Police Department is currently screening this video at police trainings.
New Orleans, posited our supervising attorney, creates reasons to celebrate. When you are facing the highest incarceration rates per capita in the country, the highest murder rate in the country, and one of the most corrupt law enforcement agencies, it becomes necessary to celebrate every victory and achievement whether that is the passage of winter to spring, or a court injunction granting you the right to inspect juvenile detention centers.

That introduction – to both New Orleans and the work of the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana (JJPL) – stuck with myself, Erica Mason, and Martha Koutsogiannopoulos as we delved into our assignments.

JJPL is located on the border between the neighborhoods of the Garden District and Center City. If you walk one way you pass one of the city’s two public shelters, an overpass that used to be a refuge for the hundreds of homeless people until they were overly ticketed and forced to move, and what remains of public housing in New Orleans. In the other direction lie the remnants of a slavery economy – plantation-style houses dotting a street covered in palm trees and wide green spaces. The neighborhood is as night and day as the JJPL offices.

Despite handling some of the most heartbreaking legal concerns, JJPL is filled with joy. Young people, their families, community organizers, and ridiculous amounts of King Cake filled the office spaces over this January. Like the opening words of our supervising attorney, the atmosphere was necessary in order to counter the difficulty of the work. On our first day the three of us from CUNY were handed memos asking us to assist JJPL in framing their policy work and legal strategies for supporting youth in the Orleans School Systems and the Juvenile and Adult incarceration sites.

I was able to complete two memos and attend three of the BreakOUT! youth groups while interning. However all of us were taken on a tour of the levees by a JJPL organizer and attended a mini-inspection of the Youth Study Center, a euphemistic title for the Juvenile Detention Center of Orleans Parish.

Our legal work focused on creating a strategy for addressing the educational abuses students daily  face through harsh suspension and expulsion policies. Mine specifically addressed what specific due process rights students are due at different time intervals of suspensions. According to the regulations governing the Orleans Parish Schools young people must have an expulsion hearing within ten days, yet they regularly go longer than ten days without a hearing. I was able to read memos from former Louisiana State Attorney Generals, local and federal cases, and policy memorandum in order to address these due process concerns.

In my second week I met with another JJPL attorney who has, since July, been attempting to get co-representation for a young man’s claims of negligence against a Louisiana juvenile detention facility. The young man was severely beaten in July and the statute of limitations on his claim have almost run out. The JJPL attorney I met with wanted me to draft a brief outlying all of his claims. With this, he thought, an outside attorney might be more easily persuaded to represent the youth. This was an overwhelming task and required me to research both local and federal laws governing such claims as well as researching the Louisiana torts laws. The lack of available claims for this young man, for whom a severe beating was not part of the punishment assigned at his trial, was appalling and revealed the ways in which the rights of inmates have been reduced sharply despite the widespread knowledge of sexual assault, rape, and assault that occur within detention centers.

Yet the staff of JJPL encounter these conditions and impediments on a daily basis. Like the city itself, the JJPL offices are filled with joy in order to counter the devastation of this work. JJPL also focuses on incorporating the voices of the youth they serve into their strategic planning in order to address not just the diminishing legal options available but to also empower and inform the people affected by these policies. While at JJPL Martha, Erica, and I were able to hear a meeting of Young Adults Striving for Success (YASS) where they planned a prom for all the youth currently suspended or expelled. Intense planning went into the colors, the location, and the advertising in order to ensure that all youth from all over New Orleans could attend.

To research concerns of due process, negligence complaints against juvenile detention centers and to correspond with adults serving time since they were juveniles requires this kind of dedication to survival and joy. While all of the work at JJPL was extraordinary the voices and work of the youth continuously uplifted and inspired us. Our work improved because of them, and we all hope that our work, in some way, can positively affect their lives.