Criminal Justice

Major ad causes minor ripple

A full-page ad in today’s Times-Picayune urging the public to call elected city officials to protest jail-expansion plans had generated just 33 calls by 3 p.m.

The ad, which cost $12,000, was paid for by a group of like-minded criminal justice reform advocates unhappy about a plan by Sheriff Marlin Gusman to expand the Orleans Parish Prison.

Gusman says he is proposing a jail complex with about 4,200 beds, up from the current 3,552 beds. His opponents, meanwhile, say in the ad that Gusman “wants to build a 5,800-bed jail to replace the present 3,500-bed jail.

“Other cities have built smaller jails while reducing violent crime,” reads the ad. “Why can’t we?”

The ad urges the public to call Mayor Mitch Landrieu and the seven City Council members, listing all of their numbers.

Representatives from those offices each said they had a handful of calls on the issue, totaling 33.

“We’ve gotten two calls, one for it, one against,” said the person answering the phone for council member Stacy Head.  Meanwhile, the receptionist for council member Kristin Gisleson Palmer said her office had received 15 calls, all in support of the ad — the most of any council member.

The Lens called the coalition to find out whether $363 per phone call to the city represents a success.

“I can’t speak to the specific numbers,” said Dana Kaplan, executive director of the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana, which led the effort. “I think the hope of many of the people who signed their name is to begin a public dialog on the issue. It is, in many ways, just one attempt to start a discussion with City Council and the public.”

“Every single person I’ve talked to has given positive responses,” Kaplan said. “Obviously it’s a huge demonstration of support for a different kind of jail.”

Landrieu’s administration has sought advice from community members with an interest in the jail, trying to develop a consensus recommendation to the City Council. The council still must approve a zoning ordinance before Gusman can proceed with his full plan.

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  • emily

    As one of the people who paid $22.39 to support this ad (which, incidentally, is the amount that OPP receives for each filled bed each night–one of the many clever components of this community effort), I can report that I wasn’t motivated by the promise of a flood of calls to New Orleans’ out-of-touch city council or mayor’s office. I was motivated by a city that continues to affect change DESPITE a council and mayor who aren’t particularly receptive to the people they ostensibly represent. We shut down prisons with secondlines. We change NOPD by going over their heads to the Department of Justice. We organize tirelessly, fearlessly, and creatively to force justice into our criminal justice system. This ad is just one example of the innovative organizing of folks like Norris Henderson, Tracie Washington, JJPL, VOTE, Families and Friends of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children, Safe Streets Strong Communities, Community United for Change, and so many others, who are rewriting New Orleans’ criminal justice landscape. But those are just my motivations, and a whole lot of other folks donated to the ad, including many of this city’s most celebrated culture workers, legal minds, activists, and academics. Why not ask them why they helped pay for the ad?

    This author clearly misses the point. Which, in my mind, leaves two options: Either this author wilfully doesn’t understand this broad effort (a popular trick in this town, but one best left to the real pros at the Times-Pic), or he’s simply ignorant of the long and rich history of community organizing in New Orleans. Either way, this article is an embarrassment.

  • What Emily said. I am really surprised at the venomous tone of this story. This ad was taken out by folks who work in many ways for real change in New Orleans. How weird to feel like The Lens is picking *these* people as the enemy.

    Also, politics is complicated, and to assume that success=people calling their city councilperson is to show a real paucity of thought about what counts as “success” in politics. Yes, that’s what the ad asks for, but the campaign is about more than that. It’s about like-minded people finding each other and knowing they’re not alone, raising awareness that this is even happening, getting people to talk about it. And you treat it–and a whole lot of veteran activists, thinkers, community leaders–with such contempt, without even thinking–or just *asking*–about the things we’re doing? Wow. I just don’t know what to say.

  • A.B.

    This article is a clear representation of poor journalism. How can one judge the effectiveness of this ad campaign on the SAME DAY that the ad is published? Campaigns–not to mention social movements—take time. Rather than tear down a collective and meaningful effort to further increase Louisiana’s unconscionable incarceration rate, the author of this piece should consider focusing his efforts on INVESTIGATING the money and political motivation behind this prison expansion—-not to mention the harmful impact that this expansion will have on families and communities. This is a ridiculous waste of effort. The Lens is funding by the Soros Foundation which has demonstrated a clear focus on decreasing massive incarceration rates throughout the nation. This poorly written article undermines these efforts and those of committed and dedicated advocates working towards true public safety reform.

  • Matt, this is a disturbingly banal piece of work.
    OPP is an extremely important subject. It has for decades been a Jail Machine for Profit.
    Matt, get yourself arrested and spend a night in OPP. Do something. This won’t get it.
    You have a corrupt machine here and you would focus on the opposition to it?
    Get the Story. Get Off Your Ass.
    Come on Lens. Jeez.

  • A.A.

    This article is a joke. I also agree with Emily. If the writer had actually some homework they would know that JJPL and FFLIC been a community leaders and a champions of Juvenile Justice throughout the state of Louisiana, successfully closing Youth Prisons including the Tallulah, a facility who’s actions were so egregious that the Department of Justice partnered with JJPL in litigation to facilitate its closure.. Not to mention its lawsuit against the City of New Orleans which led to a complete overhaul of the Youth Study Center. Regardless of how many phone calls were placed, I’m glad to know that there are people in this community willing to speak out against injustice at any cost.
    Safe Streets Strong Communities, Voice of the Ex Offender and a number of the organizations listed have done outstanding work that has affected tangible change which is more than I can say for this “web magazine.” what a poor funding choice for SOROS to have made..

  • A.A.

    sorry for the typos i get heated …

  • Red

    I find this to be a disturbingly shallow editorial rather than an investigative piece of journalism. Matt Davis adds and divides numbers as though mathematical prowess will give weight to his conclusion that the campaign was an expensive failure. Not only is this a biased and highly debatable conclusion (having relied upon a very narrow definition of success for a public awareness campaign), he was pointedly belittling of an effort of monumental importance to the city–raising consciousness about an issue that is vital to the future health and well being of New Orleans. I signed the letter and supported the campaign, not because I thought there would be an immediate effect (though that would have been ideal), but because I knew this was an available avenue to raise awareness among the city’s residents about the government’s plans. Matt Davis’ article goes beyond bad journalism; it is on the offensive, seeking to shame citizens who are creating critical public discourse about how the state treats its citizens.

  • Matt Davis

    Thanks for commenting, I hear what you are all saying. Our intention was not to deride this effort or intimate that it’s not important. We are interested in civic engagement at The Lens, and it was important to see what kind of response this advertisement had generated. Our intention was to augment the public conversation around this issue. Having said all that, my general rule of thumb as a journalist is to be available for coffee and a discussion of any issue with anyone, anytime. My cell number is 504 452 5596.

  • Kevin

    This article — news brief or blog post, really — set out to do one thing: gauge the effectiveness of a politically-related advertisement by an easily researched metric. It did that, without regard to the intentions of those who placed the advertisement.

    If the results are not what the ad-placers wanted, that’s too bad, but this is not a news brief on the merits or demerits of expanding Orleans Parish Prison. That’s a separate issue and a separate article, and I would agree with the letter-writers that it should be explored.

  • RC

    Kevin- It is used a ridiculous metric. If Matt had asked the people responsible for the ad, none of us would have said that our goal with the ad was to generate a plethora of calls to City Hall.

    It is akin to writing a blog post about how ugly The Lens website is: a) that is a matter of opinion and b) not the point of your effort, right?

  • Lazarus

    Very strange piece for the Lens… An investigative news sight goes with an accounting piece on the day the ad ran? Ad About Important Issue Generates Tepid Initial Response!
    Was that the headline?
    And that line about $363 per phone call is pretty snarky for someone who didn’t mean to deride the effort.
    This is a very hard city to get a handle on, so maybe Matt, being new to town, tried to just pick on simple piece of this to write about. But I thought the lens was for more in-depth stuff….
    For the record, I supported the ad and went to the lens kickoff party/fundraiser.

  • M.G.

    I read a few more details in your Gambit gig:

    Why not the death of a Latino man in OPP/ICE weeks ago?
    Why not the deaths of dozens of black men in OPP over the years?
    Can we investigate why these deaths ACTUALLY happen?

    Read the ACLU reports, the everyday testimony of folks who have been in OPP, go down to the prison and sit in the waiting room as the accused are let out and ask them how the conditions were and what they were in for. I did that four years ago as part of a survey team and I found a lot of people having 2 slices of bread every 6 hours for holding a beer in public, for “loitering,” and many other non-violent offenses.

    When people can’t make bail due to poverty, they can spend *YEARS* in OPP without a trial. I witnessed such a case in criminal court in June where a defendant was held for over 2 years, eventually pleading guilty because he could then go free from time served (but now with a record).

    Got to be as honest as Editilla and all the folks who have written here: you need to be on the street most of the day, talking with strangers, talking with community experts who have witnessed this systemic monstrosity build up over the generations and its affect on the health of ALL OF US. You need to be forcing police and sheriff’s records, and councilperson’s opinions, into the light of day. For all of us that don’t have full-time reporting jobs, we need you to look deeper than what powerful people say, and into what actually happens.

  • Matt–I find your comment so disingenuous! If you read your own article, it is clearly written in a dismissive tone and reports that the campaign is a failure. That’s what it says. See, for example:

    “The Lens called the coalition to find out whether $363 per phone call to the city represents a success.”

    This isn’t a simple report on “what kind of response” the ad got. It reports on the failure of the ad, with one particular kind of response the evidence for your argument. I’m not sure why I’m even bothering to respond to this again. I guess I am just disturbed by the attempt to rewrite your article in your reply in a way that makes those of us concerned about the article seem like we’re just reading too much into things, or that we’re too sensitive. And that just irks me. On to the next one, on to the next one.

  • Matt, Lens, suck it up. This is ridiculous. WTF are y’all up to?
    All of you need to spend a weekend in OPP.
    This is absurd bourgeois naivete and we simply don’t need it.
    You have completely missed who you are dealing with on the issue of OPP. The more I watch this story play out, and Matt cover his ass, the more disgusted I become.
    I agree with Kevin’s comment, but he hasn’t spent any time in OPP either obviously. Gusman is the problem, Matt, not those who oppose a Jail Machine that makes $70/inmate Federal Return.
    Nobody wants to call your frigging cell phone number, Matt. Do your job right the first time, due diligence, or go home.
    We just don’t need this BS.

  • Addendum: that is $70/inmate/day. It’s a game, Matt, and you lost.
    Go piss on a cop, it’s going to be 72 hours, at least, in OPP if your lucky and keep your mouth shut.
    Look to long at an NOPD arrest.
    Step wrong in the wrong neighborhood. WTFeva. Really.
    I won’t believe another word you say unless you can prove you’ve been there.
    Until you have actually, personally, experienced OPP you are absolutely full of BS.
    There is simply no point in this kind of “journalism”.
    This is getting like reading about how the Lithuanians laughed about the German cattle cars full of people as yellow journalism. In the meantime people were being interred and gassed. I mean really.
    This is the kind of “journalism” that allowed Bush to steal the election in 2000.
    This is the kind of “journalism” which gives the Thugs the benefit of the doubt.

  • Kevin

    I was a former reader and supporter of The Lens, but no more. And I will be telling everyone that I know to ignore this site that once showed some potential. Your all-white (or nearly all-white) staff made up mostly of recent arrivals to New Orleans are simply not qualified to provide the kind of reporting this city needs.

  • gatsby


    i think there are a few problems with your piece. as others here have pointed out, your snarky tone (intentional or not), and sense of phone call volume as a defining metric cause some to question whether you are being intentionally glib, or worse, that you are an apologist for one of the worst pieces of one of the worst criminal justice systems in america.

    good journalism illuminates and broadens contexts of important discussions. i think people are faulting you for doing the opposite of that, for narrowing the issue to something small and instead of illuminating, you completely ignore the biggest issues at stake. good journalism doesn’t have to take a side, though it can as long as it is still fair to both sides. i guess i’m wondering if you did any meaningful research before writing this story. i’m wondering if you have a sense of how our detention system compares nationally. of what the cost and impact of a broken detention system is upon the rest of our system, upon taxpayers, upon the poor, upon people of color, and upon public safety. maybe you think there is a more important frame to this story than any of that. but it’s hard to tell from this story. i guess i’m just hoping that the next piece you write about this is personally thoughtful on your part but also considers public value. who benefits from building one of america’s largest jails and at whose expense does it come? what should people know before taking one side or the other in this debate? and i hope that’s what you write about.


  • Evan C-F

    Apologies for being somewhat late to this party.

    A pretty comprehensive and high quality report (for the T-P) was released in Sunday’s paper (September 19th, 2010 by Laura Maggi), citing at length the concerns of the coalition of groups that are snarked upon in this article.

    I think, as one of the signatories to the original full-page ad, that it would have been much better if there had been a decently concerted effort to churn out phone calls, just in case an entity was waiting to ambush the campaign with simple yet deceptive stats about its immediate effect.

    It seems that above all else, the author of the short article was premature in his effort to gauge the effectiveness of the ad, but as Laura Maggi’s article shows in her front page (below the fold) article, The Lens just was too eager to pounce on this story. After waiting a few weeks, we see a great deal of new developments have unfolded in this matter, and that, unlike the very easily measured metric of $___ per phone call, there seems to have been *gasp* a not-so-easily-measured influence on the Mayor’s top advisers and the inner circle of city councilpersons, staff, and lawyers that make up the policymaking (and politics-making) core of this and any city.

    The Times-Picayune, which, given its political persuasions, seemed more likely than The Lens to write a hit piece on this campaign, actually *gasp yet again* waited a few days to determine the influence of this campaign. After interviewing Dana Kaplan as the chief representative of the anti-expansion coalition, and speaking with Sheriff Gusman, Ms. Maggi decided the coalition’s view was in fact important enough to merit going head-to-head with Sheriff Gusman, and which her Editor at the T-P in turn decided was worthy of a front page lead.

    It seems what we can learn from this is not really that Matt is a bad reporter, but that the medium of the internet demands content in an aggressive manner that most humans outside of the media and news production industry cannot comprehend. Lets lay the blame more diffusely at the larger systems at work that demanded a quantitative assessment of this campaign, rather than allowing the human element and the machinations of politics to unfold over the appropriate period of time. The constant barrage of a 24 hour news cycle has brought our democracy to its knees…lets see if New Orleans can still be saved from its voracious appetite.

    Evan Casper-Futterman