Berthawe “Bert” Jerrell Edwards II 

August 8, 1962 – April 15, 2008

In the cracks of the prison, something bloomed. 

A field of wildflowers imposed on a night sky. Blood was coming. 

Joy and dread mingled there, infusing the air with a powerful sense of rapture and uncertainty.”

Berthawe as a baby

Berthawe as a baby

Berthawe Jerrell Edwards II was born in New Orleans on August 8th, 1962, and was the youngest  of four children. He was named after his father, Bethawe Edwards, and was the only brother to his three sisters: Brenda was the oldest, then Valerie, then Joan. The original Berthawe Edwards was a man of unbelievable worth ethic and dedication, and he made sacrifices for his family everyday by working three different jobs, seven days a week. The younger Berthawe went by “Bert,”  and his sister Valerie remembers him vividly as a joyful baby who was always smiling. Valerie  and her sisters grew up caring for and watching Bert ever since he was a baby. She said she always thought of him as “her baby,” and their relationship became defined by this early closeness. Valerie’s attachment to Bert continued throughout his life and into his death. I have heard grief defined as the final act of loving someone, and the ongoing pain from it coming from the fact that you continue to love someone who has physically departed the world you inhabit. This sentiment truly encapsulates how Valerie still loves her brother; with an everlasting depth. When she spoke of Bert, she reiterated over and over how intelligent and funny he was. She painted him as an old soul, someone who she said could hold intelligent conversations with people older than himself from a very young age. She described him specifically as “the smartest of all the siblings” and said that he was constantly reading and thus always sharing random facts with family and friends.

Berthawe (R) and his Cousin Natalie, his young niece and young cousin

Berthawe (R) and his Cousin Natalie, his young niece and young cousin

The Edwards family has lived in the Gentilly Terrace area of New Orleans for decades. Pre-Hurricane Katrina the family had lived in one small single-family home on Spain Street, which had been destroyed in the hurricane. After Katrina hit, they ended up building a home on the same lot after tearing down the home that had been destroyed. Brenda’s eldest son now lives in that house. Valerie described the neighborhood they grew up in as a tight knit community. All the families knew each other, and the children played in the streets together and looked out for one another. When Bert and his siblings were growing up on Gentilly in the late sixties they were living in the middle of  Segregation. Valerie described their family as one of the first and only Black families to occupy the street they lived on, but as the Civil Rights Movement wore on, the neighborhood slowly became a predominantly Black neighborhood. Her parents met at Saint Paul’s Lutheran Church, which is just a short drive from the neighborhood they raised their children in. Saint Paul’s is a historic Black church in New Orleans, and still boasts a massive amount of programming for members. This is the same church where her parents not only met but were also married in; where she and all her siblings were baptized and grew up going to services; where her nephew Alan was married; where Bert’s funeral was held; and where her family still attends church today.

Bert died at the Conchetta Jail facility in Orleans Parish on April 15th, 2008. He was 46  years old. A death record stated that he died from a heart-related illness. Berthawe’s nephew Alan, who I was able to speak with, seemed reticent that that was the actual cause of death. In fact, Alan stated: “That’s what they say he died of.” Public consciousness surrounding suspicious inmate deaths at Orleans Parish Prison was on the rise around the time when Bert passed away. A news article I had found from the Times-Picayune, published in February of 2009, was entitled: “Death rate at Orleans Parish Prison ranks near top.” This article accounts how a dozen inmates in the facility had died between 2007- 2008, and that this figure placed it “near the top mortality rates when compared with the most recent national statistics [on] deaths at large jails.” Bert was one of six who died at the prison in 2008. The rest of Bert’s family beyond Valerie and Alan have found the circumstances surrounding his death to be mysterious and suspicious despite the autopsy that was performed by the Orleans Parish Coroner’s Office. They maintain that they are not totally sure how he died, and Valerie has struggled with this as she had not even been informed that Bert was being detained at the time of his death. At the time, Bert had told his older sister Brenda “don’t tell Val” so as not to worry her. Bert was being held at Conchetta on a probation violation and it is unclear if he was pretrial or serving time for such a violation at the time of his death. Valerie characterized his incarceration at Conchetta as frustrating because his probation officer was known to give him a hard time and, though she knew Bert was taking his prescribed psychiatric medication which has been proven to give false positives for amphetamines, said he tested positive for cocaine use in a drug test and had him arrested. At the time he was arrested for a probation violation Bert had been stable, living in a house on South Roman Street in the Broadmoor/Uptown neighborhood of New Orleans, and was working as an independent contractor. Valerie said she cried when she received his personal items from Conchetta, because one item was a notebook that contained handwritten notes of Bert’s plans and checklists for obtaining his contractor’s license so he could one day get his own business off the ground. Valerie speaks of Bert as someone who has worked his whole life, similar to the way their father had. In fact, Bert even began working with their father at age fifteen by throwing newspapers for him on the weekends.

Bert’s life, and his death, are marred by the unflinching iron chasm that is American  incarceration. When he was only 17 years old, he took his father’s gun and murdered his parents  in their family home on Spain Street. This act, while incredibly tragic and horrifying, took place as a result of Bert’s undiagnosed and untreated severe mental health disorder. After he committed the crime, a psychologist diagnosed him with paranoid schizophrenia. His sister Valerie even recounted that when Bert was about 15 or 16 years old, while living alone with his parents at their house on Spain Street, he began to display extremely bizarre and erratic behavior. Valerie said her mother would tell her when she visited that Bert was doing things like dressing in multiple layers of winter clothing during the summer months, and sleeping in the bathtub. She said she was concerned about the behavior, especially because her parents seemed fearful but also somewhat in denial of what was going on. Valerie explained that this reticence probably came from a combination of fear and also a lack of adequate health coverage needed to get Bert properly evaluated and treated. Eventually, he became verbally and physically aggressive towards his parents, and they ended up calling the police on him so he would be voluntarily committed for a 72-hour psychiatric hold at the hospital. They wanted him to be evaluated to see if he was in danger of harming himself or others. After this incident, once Bert returned home from his psychiatric hold, he apparently threatened his parents and expressed feelings of paranoia regardingtheir “betrayal” for calling the police. Despite expressing these feelings, Bert remained at home with his parents, who were aged 49 and 48 at the time. Two weeks later he committed the crime.  

After the murder, Bert was taken to Orleans Parish Prison (OPP), and his family was left to deal with the tragedy. During an interview with detectives, Bert said that his father was trying to “poison him and kill him.”  Besides Valerie, most of the family was unforgiving towards Bert.  However, Bert’s three sisters asked the District Attorney prosecuting the case to allow him to bring an insanity defense to the court, so he could ultimately be sentenced to a medical facility instead of a prison. And so began Bert’s lengthy incarceration. Valerie stated that he spent his first almost five years or so at OPP; he was then removed to a medical facility for another seven years; before he was finally released. When he was incarcerated at OPP, Valerie would visit him every single Sunday. She said that no matter what she was doing she would stop and make sure to abide by visiting hours in order to make sure she got to see him. She described these visits with Bert at OPP with immense sadness, and mentioned that during each visit for several years Bert was never fully cognizant; he was so heavily medicated that he never verbally responded to her  or showed any affirmative recognition that she was his sister. After leaving OPP, Bert was transferred to a carceral hospital and received far better medical attention, which allowed him to manage his illness and begin functioning somewhat normally. While Valerie did not visit him every Sunday at this point, she saw him frequently and learned that he was working in the laundry facility at the hospital, he had obtained his G.E.D., and he was able to write her letters when he was feeling up to the task. His letters usually contained his wishes to eventually be able to leave the carceral hospital; and in 1996 he wrote to Brenda and Valerie stating that he wanted to try and get out. In response, Valerie pooled together the family’s money to hire a lawyer to try and help him. When he was finally granted a re-sentencing hearing, Valerie went and testified that  she would allow Bert to come live with her and her daughter in Georgia if he was released. The  court released him shortly after with the condition that he had to remain on his medicine and see a psychiatrist in order to be in compliance with his probation. If he violated these orders by not taking his medication, he would be sent back. 

Bert went and lived with Valerie and her young daughter in Georgia. Valerie said there  were a number of good times during this period, and that Bert would sometimes take care of her daughter for her. They were able to bond as adults by talking between the hours of 6 and 11 P.M. once they were off work. But it was not long before Valerie noticed that Bert had started picking at his skin and looking at her with an odd disposition out of the corner of his eye. Valerie soon confirmed that Bert had stopped taking his medication. She then took him for his scheduled visit to the Cobb County mental health facility, where the doctor deemed Bert dangerous to Valerie’s household due to his history, and immediately remanded him into county custody for violating the terms of his release. Bert spent another ten years there before he was released again in late 2007. Bert only spent about 6 months in New Orleans after his second incarceration, when he violated his probation and was taken to OPP where he would later pass away. The reverberations of the pain that incarceration, mental illness, and loss have caused Valerie are palpable when hearing her speak about her brother. Bert was a complicated person, but she said he was always trying to do better. Valerie herself studied psychology in college because of him.  She will forever remember the pilot who flew Bert to Georgia one time, who had approached her after the plane landed and told her how smart Bert was. He had shaken Bert’s hand after showing him the inside of the cockpit after Bert had displayed an interest in seeing it. She said this moment struck her so deeply, because Bert’s physical appearance at this point in time could cause someone to have somewhat of “a fright,” but who he really was as a person—intelligent, curious, and funny— outshone this rough exterior and gained the appreciation of strangers.

Author: Emily Torrey


  • Jackie Wang, Carceral Capitalism, Semiotext(e), South Pasadena, California, at 308. 
  • Interview with Valerie Edwards, October 14, 2022, New Orleans, Louisiana. 
  • Interview with Alan Edwards, October 10, 2022, New Orleans Louisiana. 
  • Laura Maggi, Death rate at Orleans Parish Prison ranks near top, February 8, 2009,,