March is Women’s History Month, and we’re celebrating by recognizing the women who are making history today by working to impact policy change in various areas where Arnold Ventures works.
Today, we’re highlighting Andrea Armstrong, a law professor at Loyola University who has spearheaded groundbreaking work documenting the deaths of incarcerated people in Louisiana.
Who She Is
Growing up in New Orleans’ Central City neighborhood, Armstrong was no stranger to incarceration. The neighborhood that had once thrived as a hub of the city’s Civil Rights Movement was ravaged by the crack epidemic during Armstrong’s childhood, leading to heavy policing and subsequent incarceration.
At a magnet school she attended in another part of the city, she said her teachers expanded her expectations beyond what she saw in her neighborhood. In high school, Armstrong completed a homework assignment that won her a scholarship to attend high school in Germany. She said the experience opened her eyes to how the world functioned outside of New Orleans.
After a career in international human rights, she became interested in the conditions people face behind bars here in the U.S. “The Constitution operates differently behind bars and provides far less protection to someone who is incarcerated,” she said. “Not only can the government do things behind bars that are prohibited in the free world, but those decisions also receive extensive deference from the courts.
As a law professor at Loyola University New Orleans, she has channeled this interest into documenting the deaths of people who have died in prisons and jails through the Deaths Behind Bars in Louisiana project and its website, Incarceration Transparency. The project, which collects and publishes deaths by facility and cause, as well as memorials for people who died in the New Orleans jail, is the first of its kind for the state. The project shines a light on an otherwise black box of incarceration.
“It’s really in prisons, and jails and detention centers, that we see who we are,” she said.
On Her Greatest Victories and Challenges
Armstrong is quick not to take credit for recent victories in criminal justice reform in Louisiana, pointing out that all of her work is part of larger efforts and teams. In 2018, she was part of a team that secured the right to vote for people on probation and people who have been on parole for five years. That same year, she was part of a successful statewide campaign urging voters to pass a constitutional amendment to require that all 12 jurors agree on a verdict. Previously, Louisiana was one of two states that did not mandate a unanimous jury decision to convict someone of a felony, a practice that was created in 1880 to make it easier for juries to convict Black people.
But in her line of work, there are as many challenges as there are wins. She said she still faces barriers accessing information in prisons and jails. Though her Deaths Behind Bars project seeks to uncover some of this information, “it’s an enormous challenge to get information out of these facilities and into the public realm,” she said. “The challenge also sparks the work.”
What She’s Working On Now
Armstrong and her team are hard at work examining data from 2020 prison and jail deaths so they can eventually add it to their database. They’re looking beyond Louisiana, too, working with partners in other states to help build their own projects.
Armstrong is also serving as a co-chair on Sheriff-elect Susan Hutson’s transition team. Hutson, who will become the first female Black sheriff in Louisiana, ran on a reformist platform pledging to improve conditions in the Orleans Parish jail. “She gave us a really explicit charge; she wanted the data and the priorities and the analysis for making sure that the jail reflects the community’s wishes,” said Armstrong of her transition work.
She recently published her research on carceral healthcare and also has several academic pieces that will be published soon, including two articles on incarcerated labor and another on deaths behind bars.
“It’s hard not to be busy. For one, just because of the seriousness of the impact. But two is I do this work with communities and teams that are also invested in this work. And so we constantly are challenging each other to do the work in better, smarter, more impact-oriented ways.”
I do this work with communities and teams that are also invested in this work. And so we constantly are challenging each other to do the work in better, smarter, more impact-oriented ways.Andrea Armstrong law professor at Loyola University