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Shreveport’s gun violence and incarceration issues go ‘hand in hand,’ residents say

Carl Law and his son, Blaze, stand on a porch in the Lakeside neighborhood of Shreveport, Louisiana, on April 18, 2024.
Maya Miller
/
Gulf States Newsroom
Carl Law and his son, Blaze, stand on a porch in the Lakeside neighborhood of Shreveport, Louisiana, on April 18, 2024. Law, whose father was incarcerated throughout his school years, said children losing their parents to lockups explains why the area’s violence has not improved.

On a friend's red-and-green-painted porch in the Lakeside neighborhood of Shreveport, Louisiana, Carl Law is wrangling his two-year-old son, Blaze.

Anxious for his dad's attention, Blaze pulls on his dad's T-shirt. The toddler's interruptions burble beneath Law's voice as he describes his relationship with his own father — one built through jail phones.

"He stayed in my life through the jail, still,” Law said. “He made sure he called me. But a lot of people don't have that.”

Law is among a few Shreveport residents who point to mass incarceration as a contributor to the area's gun violence.

"Most parents [are] locked up a kid's whole life. They've been putting people away, not trying to help," Law, who works as a box truck driver, explained. "So what you think the kid is going to come out to be like, when they got no dad in they life, to try to teach them the right way to come up?"

Last year, a burst of homicides rattled Shreveport. This year, high-profile gun crimes such as the shooting death of a 1-year-old child have stirred outrage.

But incarceration also touches many of the city's families.

A larger share of Shreveport residents is in prison compared to bigger Louisiana cities — like New Orleans and Baton Rouge, according to a 2023 review by Voice of the Experienced, the Prison Policy Initiative and a data-analysis group. An overcrowded parish jail has vexed officials.

It's a microcosm of a larger Gulf South challenge. Federal data show Louisiana and Mississippi led the nation in imprisonment rates in 2022, while Alabama's prison system is both overcrowded and in chronic turmoil.

Law is a friend of gang violence intervention organizer Robert Bruchun. He said his father was incarcerated during his elementary school years, and he didn't get out until he was going into his senior year of high school.

Against the odds, they maintained a close relationship, with Law even feeling scared to report to his dad when he misbehaved.

While community members sometimes step in as father figures, Law said losing dads to lockups — paired with few good jobs and dwindling activities for young people — explains why this area's violence hasn't improved.

"They just want to lock everybody up, send them to jail and think that's going to stop it. But that ain't gonna never stop it," he said.

Law
As violent crime slows down across the South, Shreveport is reckoning with the aftermath of an unusually deadly 2023.

'We're living in the epidemic'

Social worker Vanessa Smith sits at the front desk of Compassion for Lives in Shreveport, Louisiana, on April 18, 2024.
Maya Miller
/
Gulf States Newsroom
Social worker Vanessa Smith sits at the front desk of Compassion for Lives in Shreveport, Louisiana, on April 18, 2024.

At Compassion for Lives on Pines Road, hand-drawn cards are taped up in the front window of the office shared by social worker Vanessa Smith and executive director Carla Buntyn. The two said they regularly visit jails for pre-release counseling and support services.

Decades ago, they watched their community begin to change — including mounting losses to families.

"I'd say it probably took a turn in the mid-80s to late 80s," Smith said.

"The late 80s and the crack cocaine epidemic," Buntyn agreed. "That's when you [saw] the men leave the homes. They were no longer there. They were, guess what? Incarcerated."

In their telling, that era of the community's history destabilized households. Moms struggled, and the ensuing impacts rippled through generations. That's especially been true in cases where young people became pregnant and left school to raise kids, they said.

Buntyn draws a direct line between past problems and recent violence in Shreveport.

Cards and information about applying for food assistance are in the front window of Compassion for Lives' office in Shreveport, Louisiana.
Maya Miller
/
Gulf States Newsroom
Cards and information about applying for food assistance are in the front window of Compassion for Lives' office in Shreveport, Louisiana.

"What you see today, 14-year-olds killing each other, this is the outcome [of] that crack cocaine epidemic," Buntyn said. "We talk about it all the time. We're living in the epidemic. This is it.”

For young clients caught up in violence, social worker Vanessa Smith said economic strain, drug use and trauma — what public health experts call adverse childhood experiences— have often come to a head.

Their organization tries to connect clients and community members with social services like housing assistance, job training and education. The idea is to strengthen communities and break cycles of poverty and crime.

Smith said they're also trying to mitigate harm that can happen in custody.

"A lot of times they're in a crisis when they go to jail, they get traumatized in jail, and they come out in that same crisis mode again," she said.

Law
The case surrounding Jerome Stevenson's death highlights the barriers to information that families face when someone is hurt or dies while in custody.

'They all work hand in hand'

Carl Law’s son Blaze poses for a photo in the Lakeside neighborhood of Shreveport, Louisiana, on April 18, 2024.
Maya Miller
/
Gulf States Newsroom
Carl Law’s son Blaze poses for a photo in the Lakeside neighborhood of Shreveport, Louisiana, on April 18, 2024. Law wants more opportunities in Shreveport for young people like his son.

For Democratic State Rep. Joy Walters, the legacy of mass incarceration is synonymous with gun violence in Shreveport.

"They all work hand in hand," she said.

Walters, whose district covers part of the city, sits on the state's House Administration of Criminal Justice committee. She said the area's crime comes up almost every day in conversations with her constituents.

At the same time, many of the people she talks with have had a parent in prison.

Earlier this year, Walters held town halls to inform the community after a package of new "tough-on-crime" laws — including changes to how 17-year-olds are charged, good-behavior release credits and parole — galloped through the legislature.

"My district is impacted — all districts are impacted — by these pieces of legislation. Because people will sit for longer in jails," she said.

It will take a concerted effort by law enforcement, community organizers, religious leaders, and even people involved in crime, to take on gun violence in her area, Walters said. She respects her statehouse colleagues, but "us making laws out of fear, it's still not solving the issue."

Back on the red-and-green porch, Law's little boy gets restless, wriggling on his hip. At one point, Law directs him inside to get a drink of water or tells him not to touch some bleach on the porch.

As a parent in this community, he said there's a lot to worry about.

"By him being a young Black man in this world? Yes, I think about that all the time," Law said.

He wants the city to create more opportunities for young people like Blaze and his older child, who's in school. He said he got his box truck in hopes of building something that his kids could inherit from him after he dies.

He also wants to be a good dad, like his own father.

The violence he's seen growing up in Shreveport, “make[s] me want to be in my son's life even more,” he said. “It make[s] me want to raise him right, and teach him the right thing.”

"My daddy taught me the right thing. He was in my life; he just went to jail. He just wasn't here physical[ly]. But my thing is, I want to make sure I be here physical[ly] for him, you know?"

Law
For the first time in nearly a decade, U.S. prison populations are trending up. Louisiana's numbers are a part of troubling gains across the Gulf South.

This story was produced by the Gulf States Newsroom, a collaboration between Mississippi Public BroadcastingWBHM in Alabama, WWNO and WRKF in Louisiana and NPR

Kat Stromquist is a senior reporter covering justice, incarceration and gun violence for the Gulf States Newsroom.