April 17, 2006

Waiting for Frank

A lock-up out of Kafka ensnares a New Orleans volunteer relief worker.

John Harlow

I expect prisons to be awful. Massive stone monuments to the ugliness of power. Dark cellar reminders of our society's sublimated Fascist impulse. I do not expect them, however, to be disorderly. But sitting under the glaring white lights in Orleans Parish Prison on the Saturday afternoon of Mardi Gras, I wasn't thinking about the miserable state mechanics of incarceration. Instead, I was thinking, "What kind of goddamn idiots are running this place?" It felt like a DMV.

All photos Nick Heyming
Scenes of relief and celebration: A wrecked building in east Biloxi ...
Much of my frustration originated from my spending a major holiday inside the waiting room of New Orleans central lock-up. Around noon that day, I had gotten word that my friend and co-worker, Frank (not his real name), was in jail. I was working with a crew of volunteer laborers down the coast in Mississippi, helping to rebuild houses after Hurricane Katrina. We worked hard and rarely took any time off, but we had heard that Saturday's parade would be fantastic.

I planned to make the hour-long drive into the city on Saturday morning. I would make one huge day and night of Dionysian revelry in old New Orleans, my favorite American city, before heading back to work on Sunday. Another friend, Neil (also not his real name), would ride with me. Much of the rest of the crew, including Frank, had gone ahead the night before.

The men and women I was working with in Mississippi were wonderful. Kind, stubborn, and free, they came from all over broad America. They left homes, jobs, and families behind. They awoke in tents in the hot and muggy Mississippi morning to work for the welfare of unfortunate folks they had never met before. Our camp was populated with college students and tractor mechanics, with carpenters and elderly retired couples. Leaving behind vastly different lives, folks came to Mississippi without ego or pretense, motivated only by a desire to help.

During the day, they patched roofs, cut down trees, counseled victims, and began to rebuild homes. They cooked each other meals and built a functional, collective community of volunteers. At night, they made campfires and sat around for hours, drinking and teaching each other old country and folk songs. The group was tight-knit but welcoming of newcomers, its only prerequisite for membership that you were there to work.

Arriving only weeks after Katrina struck the coast, many of my co-workers had been in the storm-ravaged region for months. Many had worked for a time, left briefly, and then returned to work again. There were exceptions, but the group as a whole carried with it a certain brand of wilderness commensurate with the unique nature of their work. Because I was aware beforehand of the particular habits and character of our crew, I considered a brush or two with the infamous New Orleans authorities to be inevitable. I just expected that I'd be drunk myself by the time it happened.

Instead, I hadn't even reached the city limits when I heard the news. Just as we were reaching Lake Pontchartrain, five minutes outside New Orleans, Neil and I called our friends in the city. The open road had us bouncing out of our seats with excitement. We were barbarians at the gates, the righteous relief workers of the coast come to tear into New Orleans and suck the marrow out of Mardi Gras. We wanted to know at which bar we could find our friends.

"Ohhhh, man. You haven't heard about Frank. Yeah, he went to jail last night."

... lunch in front of a Biloxi bridge ...
Stumbling down Bourbon Street last night, Frank apparently had taken off running from police on horseback. None of our people had seen him since, but a phone call to central booking confirmed that he was being held on some kind of drunk-in-public charge. It hadn't even occurred to anyone else to bail him out. Shocked and deflated, Neil and I turned our car away from Bourboun Street and went to track Frank down.

Spend a few hours in an administrative endeavor at the Orleans Parish Prison, and it doesn't seem possible that you could still be in the United States. This was how I imagined municipal services must be administered in Bratislava or Tripoli. When we first arrived at the prison, there was a line of about three or four groups of people waiting to post bail. After about a half-hour in line, we reached the front and the small, iron-barred window that separated our waiting room from what appeared to an office.

Beyond this window lay an expansive room filled with copy machines, printers, and nearly a dozen clerks all in various reclined positions. At any hour of the afternoon, you could catch at least four or five of them dining on some kind of take-out food. Everyone seemed to be smacking gum all day, even while eating. They all wore T-shirts that said "SHERIFF" on the front.

"I'm looking for my friend, Frank Mitchum," Neil told a female clerk facing the window.


"Could you tell me what's going on with him? How can I talk to him?"

"Is he locked up? If he's locked up, you can't talk to him. If he's upstairs, he can't see no visitors."

"OK. Well, I don't know what's going on. Could you tell me where he is?"

"What's the name?"

"Frank Mitchum."

There was a long pause, as the woman clacked away at the computer next to her. Behind her, a man lifted a near-empty bag of potato chips high above his head, tilting it so that the remaining scraps tumbled out into his waiting mouth.

parade float
... and the Bacchus Krewe, performing in New Orleans.
There was also a large, electronically-locking iron door connecting the waiting room and the office, and it suddenly swung open. One of the sheriffs walked out, but the door would not close behind him. It seemed to be getting stuck on the outer door jamb, and after a few seconds a soft, droning alarm could be heard as it sat ajar. The sheriff fiddled with it for a few moments and then gave up. He brushed past us and leaned in to the barred window.

"Sharon, that door's broke. I'm going on lunch."

He took off out the front door of the waiting room, as Sharon turned back to us. She had found Frank on her computer.

"Oh yeah, he's already upstairs. You can't see him," she informed us.

Once an inmate goes "upstairs" in Orleans Parish Prison, they cease to exist in our physical universe. At least until their arraignment. We couldn't visit Frank. We couldn't get a message to him. We couldn't arrange to send a lawyer up to him. When we asked whether he had already contacted a lawyer himself, the clerk gave us a look like we had inquired as to whether he would be receiving a heated bubble bath in his cell that evening. He would get to see a lawyer at his arraignment and no sooner.

After a brief discussion as to whether we ought to post Frank's bail (there were some questions about whether he would reimburse us), we put together the $615 and handed it over. As silly and harmless as these buffoons seemed in the office, we sensed without being told that things were dark and awful "upstairs." We received a certified receipt of bail and were told to sit back down.

Once we had posted Frank's bail, we could only wait. We were told that the prisoner could possibly be released within an hour or two. On the other hand, there could be no guarantees that it would happen before the morning. The waiting room was filled with groups of slack-jawed friends and relatives, sitting on wooden benches and staring at the blank white walls. Rumors circulated that a group of brothers from Oklahoma were sleeping in their truck out front. They had been waiting since Thursday.

I struck up a conversation with a middle-aged, leisurely-dressed black couple, and I found out they were from North Carolina, just an hour from where I grew up. The man and his wife had driven down to visit their nephew for Mardi Gras. When they showed up at his apartment, his girlfriend told them he was in jail. I told them our similar story.

"You know what they say about New Orleans, huh?" the husband smiled. "Come on vacation ... leave on probation."

Over the next six hours, absolutely nothing of consequence happened. Occasionally, Neil and I left to get food or take nap in the car. At one point in the early evening, someone who appeared to be a prison guard came into the lobby with a clipboard. He moved around the room asking each group which prisoner they were waiting for, and then checked that name against whatever was written on his clipboard.

"Does that mean y'all are bringing him out soon?" an old man in a Saints hat asked.

The guard scowled back at him. Like all sentinels of menial information, he viewed even the mildest inquiry into what he was doing as a personal affront. "NO—I didn't say that. I didn't say that," the guard snapped. "I said, 'who you waiting for?' That's it." He went on making marks on his clipboard.

Finally, just past eight o'clock, a different guard brought out a large group of seven or eight prisoners. They had to wait down the hall behind a row of bars for another half-hour. Sheriff Sharon met them at the end of the hall, and was processing them somehow.

Towards the back of the group, we could see our boy. He looked a little tired and beat up, I thought, but at least he survived the night. After a few minutes, he noticed us standing down the hall. "Why'd you bail me out?" He mouthed at us with a scowl. Then he broke into a smile and laughed. "Thank you. Thank you. Thank you."

When Frank was finally processed, the row of bars slid open and we all walked out of prison together. We still had most of a night of Mardi Gras ahead of us, although none of us possessed exactly the same kind of spirited energy we once had.

As we passed the office on our way out, some kind of food-related argument was going on between two of the clerks. The thick, iron door was still ajar, and I could hear the persistent, faint drone of an alarm. I paused at the door for just a moment and then followed my friends to the door, slipping out into the warm, humid Louisiana night.

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- World
- posted on Jul 09, 09

Yeah, I think the same people were sittinf behind the counter when my sister died in there. They sound like the same ones I saw.

Article by John Harlow

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