Black families in New Orleans live in constant fear of having their young men put in jail - 5

Mar 2, 2016

Louisiana is the incarceration capital of the world. That means more families have a loved one behind bars than in any other place.

This is Unprisoned. I’m Eve Abrams.

I wanted to find out what it’s like having a family member behind bars, or under the constant anxiety of being put there. And then I met Kortney Williams.

“It was in my communications class,” recalls Kortney, “and I wasn’t really interested in this class that day, because I knew later that day me and my coworkers were gonna meet up and have a big ‘ol kickball tournament.”

Kortney Williams is 22, a New Orleans native, and a student at Xavier University. She wants to be a radio host one day. I’d gone to her class to play audio stories about incarceration. But, like she said, at first it didn’t “click.”

“I had other things on my mind,” she says, “and I wasn’t thinking about: ‘I know all these jail questions.’ And I look out the window and I see Orleans Parish Prison, right across the street from my campus. So by the end of the class, I was like: ‘Why I didn’t pay attention earlier?’ And of course, you walked up to me and said you were really intrigued by my knowledge about the system.”

“And did you want to do some recording?” I asked her.

“And did I want to do some recording. Of course! Who’s going to say no?”

Kortney Williams knows a lot about jail, and court, and the District Attorney. Her family’s been through a lot. Many family members — mostly men — have been put in jail. Take her brother, for example.

“My brother missed my high school graduation, because the night before my graduation he went to jail,” she says. “My brother missed my birthday dinner because that day, actually, he went to jail. My brother missed his own birthday dinner because he was in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

“So all these times when he ended up going to jail, were charges pressed, or did he just get taken to jail?” I ask.

“The charges would be pressed and they would have a bond posted. Then the charges would get dropped because there was no evidence.”

Kortney Williams is black, and here in New Orleans, 85 percent of the people detained in jail are black, according to the Vera Institute of Justice and Mayor Landrieu’s Office of Criminal Justice Coordination. That’s well above the city’s black population, which is about 60 percent.

Kortney and I talked about who in her family she should interview about the ways the criminal justice system affects family. Right away, she chose Troylynn Robertson, who fought for her son in court and now, since his release from prison, is helping him re-enter society. Troylynn is Kortney’s aunt, but ever since she was a little kid, Kortney’s called her “Ma.”

“How does it affect the parents when the children keep going to jail?” Kortney asks her.

“Me personally, I had to find a place where I can be stronger because my children was in a place where they was weak,” she answers. “So I had to go back to things that I seen and heard with my beliefs Biblical-wise, and what I have seen history-wise with African American people mostly, with slavery. And the woman had to be stronger to be able to withstand or to be able to help.

“Sometimes it’s a hurting place to be, and you can’t do nothing with that but to either break or be stronger. You don’t have a happy medium.”

“When you start having that thought in your mind that ‘my child might go to jail,’ what would you tell your child?” asks Kortney.

“Whether we want to say it or not, most moms, especially black moms, when we have male children, we already know what the world is preparing them for; they got a whole judicial system just for them,” says Troylynn. “So we start trying to prepare our children not to head in that direction. So we do investment. I invest my love into them.”

But that wasn’t enough to stop her sons from going to jail. Troylynn’s younger son, Corey Johnson (that’s Kortney’s cousin) served 3 years (the final one in Angola) on a drug charge — something Kortney and her family strongly maintain he did not do. This wasn’t Corey’s first drug charge.

“The first time he got caught with — I think they say he got caught with a piece of rock and the second time, it was with a residue of cocaine,” remembers Troylynn. “And my thing was: well they said you had it, plead guilty.”

But in 2010, Corey was outside his house in Central City and the police ordered him, his brother, and two friends up on the police car. Troylynn saw the police frisk them and then throw her son in the police car. They later claimed Corey had drugs on him. So this time, Troylynn couldn’t tell Corey to plead guilty, because this time she knew he didn’t do anything.

“You know, when you look at a young man going to the jail at the age of 22, 23 years old, how do you tell your son that there is justice in the world when you haven’t experienced or seen it? When you can go to jail for something you didn’t do?”

Troylynn fought hard for her son — both before and after his conviction. But to do that, she had to learn a tremendous amount about the justice system. I asked Kortney about it.

“You said in the beginning, she didn’t really know any of this stuff.”

“She didn’t know really — she knew the basics,” says Kortney, “but not into the depth she knows now. And she had to teach herself. She actually went and took classes.”

“What classes?”

“A criminal justice class to teach herself how to deal with the system, or what’s going on with the system, and learn laws about the system.”

“Was this before Corey was incarcerated or after?”

“This was after he went to jail because she was just so tired of being — just sitting in the courtroom feeling stupid, so to say. Not knowledgeable about what’s going on in the courtroom. So she went and Googled: where can I take a criminal justice class? How can I learn about this system? What do I need to know about the courtroom?”

Troylynn Robertson's District Attorney's Office Citizens Academy identification badge.
Credit Eve Abrams / Unprisoned

“The DA had a class for the public to know the workings of the District Attorney’s office,” explains Troylynn. “DA Canizzaro asked everyone to stand up and introduce themselves. So what I did was when I stood up and introduced myself, I told him my name was Troylynn Robertson. I was the mother of Conroy and Cory Johnson. That my two sons was convicted into the judicial system and I was the mother who sued the District Attorney’s office, including him, for the right to my son’s public records. I sued because I just felt like I wasn’t getting any justice.”

During her son Corey’s trial, Troylynn kept noticing something. Here’s what she told Kortney:

“I just found it very strange that nobody else was seeing the pink elephant in the room when I was sitting there watching my child go through it, but yet I would look around and I seen myself in the mirror through other people going through the same thing with their loved ones. It can’t just be me when they have people that look like me going through the same experience and still not getting no justice.”

I asked Williams about this.

“That pink elephant is she sees that mother or that aunt, that grandmother sitting next to her fighting for their son, their nephew, their cousin,” says Kortney.

“And that grandmother, mother, they’re also black?” I ask.

“Yeah, they’re black, just like their loved ones; they’re black. And it’s like: why is it just us? It’s a frustration. Why is it just us? Why are we the ones only sitting in this courtroom wearing the orange? Why are we the only ones?”

“So how did it feel asking your Aunt Troylynn to talk about all of this?”

“It’s not a secret within our family,” says Kortney. “We try to make sure that even like the younger cousins, like my younger brother — I would consider him the younger generation — we try to let them know what’s going on within the family and just make it known how to live in this world being a young black boy, how to keep yourself out of trouble. You know: Be careful, be smart, be mindful. Think about what you’re doing before you do it. You have to have knowledge within yourself to know that you are a black man in America.”

Kortney finds herself giving this advice — all the time — to the black males in her life, but this is something that affects everyone in her family, and she needs guidance too.

“With everything that you went through with your children, what is any advice you would give me if I had any kids?” Kortney asks Troylynn.

“I would tell you, when you have them, you know the first thing that would initially come to mind is love and protection,” answers Troylynn. “But I would tell you even much with the protection — to raise them with knowledge of the judicial system. You know we always tell our kids about the boogey man, the bad people, who to watch out for, but we don’t teach them how to watch out for the judicial system.”

Unprisoned: Stories From The System is produced by Eve Abrams and brought to you by New Orleans Public Radio and Finding America, a national initiative produced by AIR, the Association of Independents in Radio, Incorporated, and with financial support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the Wyncote Foundation, the John D and Catherine T MacArthur Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts.

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