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Elain Ellerbe | August 31, 2017
August 29th was the 12th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, which at the time was the worst weather disaster to hit the U.S. in nearly 35 years. Unfortunately, Hurricane Harvey, which is pulverizing most of southeast Texas, is now the benchmark for such a life-altering weather event. As I watched the news accounts, many chilling memories have crept back in my mind as I recall how I personally dealt with offenders housed at Dixon Correctional Institute (DCI) in Jackson, Louisiana who had family that lived in the path of Katrina. Being in prison on any day is not pleasant, but not being able to have contact with your family who may well be in a dire situation is doubly heartbreaking.
My husband Michael and I were both employed at DCI at the time of Katrina’s obscene push through the state. Michael was the director of pre-release and reentry, and I was the coordinator for substance abuse and parenting programs. Given our day-to-day interactions with the population and our faith-based backgrounds, the Chaplain asked us to come to the prison as soon as we were able to get through the roads. While our area was not hit nearly as hard as others, traveling from our home in Baton Rouge to the rural area where the prison was located was a bit of an adventure. Non-essential staff had been told to stay home, but we knew we needed to be there, and so after an hour and half trip (which normally only took us 30 minutes) we arrived at the prison. The warden allowed us to open up the dormitory-turned-classroom that Michael used for his pre-release classes, and we welcomed everyone to come talk and to ask questions. It was a very fragile situation, as these men were extremely emotional and frustrated because they did not feel they were getting any answers concerning the whereabouts of their loved ones. Phones were out, and electricity was out, so communication was non-existent. After so many men kept repeating, “Why didn’t people get out, why didn’t they send more transportation, why did THEY let this happen,” I remember Michael responding, “Guys, how many times has someone told you, ‘Son, if you don’t straighten up, you are going to jail’ – and did you listen?” The room went silent. We were then able to calm the group down. We prayed with them. We cried with them. We just let them talk, and in the end, for that day, it was all anyone could do for them.
As days moved on, the administration determined that the Chaplain, Michael, and I should start getting phone numbers from the offenders to try and make some contact with one of their family members. After a few weeks of this, we were instructed to get descriptions of the missing family members, any identifying marks such as scars, tattoos, or birth marks so that we could turn these descriptors into the coroner’s office. That was a very sobering task. The really sad thing is that for many of the offenders, some never found their family members. We all determined that maybe the family evacuated elsewhere and it was a perfect time to cut the “black sheep of the family” loose once and for all. With 1,800 people known to have been killed, some were never identified, and the missing were assumed to be lost in the Gulf of Mexico as waters receded.
In Texas, over 4,500 offenders have had to be evacuated thus far, and it is likely many of those have family and friends affected by Hurricane Harvey as well as any number of offenders in other Texas prisons. Communication is non-existent unless you can receive a text on a cell phone. With only the horrific images on the television screen to tell them what’s going on, I’m certain offenders all across Texas are wondering what is happening to their family.
I pray the faith-based community within the prisons and other volunteers will take a little extra time with those offenders who have not heard from their family. It is the least anyone can do.
“In as much as you have done this for the least of my brothers, you have done it for Me.” –Matthew 25:40