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Old and new sections of the Orleans Parish Prison in New Orleans, Dec. 7, 2020.

When the power went out after Ida, my 1-year-old daughter had pneumonia and I was hustling to open Ngombo Cafe, a café and healing space created by exonerees, artists, and activists, and led by New Orleans youth, in just one month. Like everyone else, our plans changed.

We needed power for my daughter’s treatment, so we took her to our family in Shreveport who had power. But, lots of folks weren’t so lucky — they had no power, no gas, and no place to go. To make matters worse, the city of New Orleans couldn’t do nearly enough to support their own people.

So my business partners and I improvised: We opened up Ngombo Cafe a month early as a mutual aid distribution center. Everyday, folks lined up around the block, all with different needs. We did our best to get people gas, food, water, and whatever else they needed.

The whole time I was thinking, "It didn’t need to be this way."

This disaster wasn’t natural. The wreckage from Ida happened because those in power failed to invest in our infrastructure and build a more resilient power grid. New Orleans was left in the dark, forcing my family to escape and get my daughter necessary medical care, making people stand in line in the heat for hours to get basic resources, and killing 10 people.

Instead, New Orleans’ public officials spent our city’s resources on mass incarceration. Back in 2015, we spent $150 million building Sheriff Marlin Gusman a new jail. On top of that, New Orleans spends $6.4 million a year incarcerating people who cannot pay bail and fees.

But, the cost isn’t just money. I was wrongly convicted and incarcerated for 20 years. These failing systems cost me decades, they’re costing my community food, water, gas, even their lives, and frankly, we’re done paying.

Gusman and others want us to spend an additional $51 million on expanding the jail, even as big questions about how the city will rebuild post-Ida remain. I’ve been incarcerated and I can tell you that expanding the jail won’t make anyone safer.

Imagine what New Orleans could do with $51 million, instead of incarcerating more people.

JEROME MORGAN

restaurateur

New Orleans