“A Matter of Survival”—Sade Dumas on Combating Racial Injustice in the Criminal Legal System

Erica Bryant Associate Director of Writing
Feb 25, 2022
Illustration by Gloria Mendoza

Sade Dumas, executive director of the Orleans Parish Prison Reform Coalition (OPPRC) in Louisiana, has worked tirelessly to decrease the population of the Orleans Parish Prison and improve conditions there for those held behind bars. A Vera partner, she advocates for evidence-based methods to reduce incarceration and promotes alternatives to arrest. Under her leadership, OPPRC has helped stop a planned expansion of Orleans Parish Prison and is fighting to establish a non-police crisis unit that is trained to respond to mental health emergencies. Dumas also helped recruit and support the candidacy of Orleans Parish Sherriff Susan Hutson, who last year became the first progressive and first Black woman ever elected sheriff in Louisiana.

What brought you to justice work?

I am a native New Orleanian, and I grew up in a city with an overinflated jail population. We had more than 6,500 people in our jail, and New Orleans is a really small city. I have a brother who is currently incarcerated, and I was previously married to someone incarcerated in Orleans Parish Prison. But that is not how I got to the work. From the data, I saw that Black people were doing the same things at the same rate as other people, but Black people were disproportionately represented in the jail. That is what made me realize there was a problem. This was not by mistake; this is by design. So, I started my advocacy work to look at racial injustice in the criminal legal system during my studies at Tulane University.

Who are some of your Black history heroes?

There are so many from the past that there is no way I could choose among them. I know my Black history heroes today, and one of them is Ashley Shelton, who leads the Power Coalition for Equity and Justice. She is always working on voting rights issues for Black and brown people living in Louisiana. So many people talk about Stacey Abrams, and she is our Stacey Abrams of Louisiana. She also leads excellent work with her She Leads: Community Activist Fellowship Program to train Black women and women of color as we carry out justice work. She is phenomenal, and it is critical that her programs are funded to continue positively changing the landscape of Louisiana for Black and brown communities.

Please tell us about your current work with the Orleans Parish Prison Reform Coalition.

Our most critical campaign right now is stopping the construction of a psychiatric jail and advocating for a crisis stabilization center. No one should be jailed for being sick. Data from the National Alliance on Mental Illness and other sources shows that incarcerating people with mental illness hurts them, and they often come out worse. So, we are working with Vera to advocate for a non-carceral, community-based crisis stabilization center to ensure our loved ones can have treatment in the community and not be jailed because of a lack of resources. Right now, over 90 percent of people in our jail are Black, and over 80 percent have a psychiatric or substance abuse disorder. This picture tells me that Black people are not given access to the tools we need to thrive in the community, and they are locking us up and making money off of that. We need to find a new way to create a safe, thriving community for everyone and also a society in which Black people and people with mental illnesses are not criminalized for existing.

I am also a co-chair on a task force for the city of New Orleans to create a non-police crisis response team. When we talk about jail, we talk about conditions and size. But, before people get to jail, they are usually met by police. Data shows that police are not trained or equipped to deal with people who are experiencing mental health crises. People who have untreated mental illnesses are 16 times more likely to be shot and killed by the police. We already know racial injustice is in policing. This is a way to address racial justice, divert people from the carceral system, and create community support for our neighbors. With a non-police crisis team, you would have a mental health clinician, a peer support specialist, and a social worker instead of having police respond to 911 calls for mental health crises. I started that campaign last year. We are looking to replicate the CAHOOTS model in New Orleans. In a five-week period, 500 people came to our listening sessions to learn about the current response to mental health crises and the alternative we can create.

Last year, we worked really hard on a progressive sheriff platform and had 35 organizations sign on. I helped recruit Susan Hutson to run, and she adopted much of OPPRC’s platform. Some of her campaign promises were free jail phone calls for incarcerated individuals, making sure that the sheriff is not housing trans people according to their [genders assigned at birth], and promising to rid the jail of our current medical providers who are not providing top-of-the-line health care. Most importantly, she ran opposing jail expansion. With our education around the role of the sheriff, New Orleans elected its first Black woman sheriff and first progressive sheriff. Now, the accountability work with her begins. We can’t forget about people currently in the jail, many of whom are Black people. We have to remember that their lives, their humanity, and dignity matter. Conditions of incarceration are closely tied to recidivism and how people renter society. We have made outstanding progress in successfully stopping a jail expansion in 2019 and fighting and winning many decarceration initiatives throughout the life of this coalition. I am always working to change the narrative that over-incarceration leads to safety.

How do you stay motivated given the magnitude and horrors of mass incarceration?

I stay grounded by understanding that it took us a long time to get where we are now, and it’s going to take us a long time to get out of our current circumstances. I feel so grateful for the work of people who came before me. There were 6,500 people in our jail in 2004 before OPPRC was formed. Knowing that there are roughly 900 today and that I was a part of that progress is indescribable. We work with partners like Vera, and we center our community members who are most directly impacted by the issue. My community—the people who came before me and the people who are fighting with me now—keeps me going when things become challenging.

Many of us have to do this work because it is a matter of survival. If we don’t stop [mass incarceration], our uncles, brothers, and everyone we love can be in jails and prisons due to an unjust criminal legal system. So, it’s a matter of survival, and it’s a matter of knowing that we may not actualize the world we are fighting for in our lifetime. People who fought to abolish slavery never saw the abolition of that system. However, we are living in our current freedoms because of the sacrifices of our ancestors. We now have more resources, technology, and information than ever before. We can bring people into this work through education and mobilizing. I stay motivated by knowing the work that came before me and knowing that I can make a better world for the next generation and my descendants.