Reflections on Katrina’s First Year: The Story of Chaos and Continuing Abuse in One of America’s Worst Justice Systems
by Bob Williams
As America reflected on Hurricane Katrina's first anniversary last August, one major component was missing from the many reviews: The abused, neglected prisoners. Ignored during the 2005 catastrophe and still ignored more than 20 months later, the plight of New Orleans' prisoners can no longer be swept under the carpet lest we face judgment as a nation of hypocrites for the way we treat helpless victims, including those who are incarcerated.
Hurricane Katrina has been dubbed an "ultra catastrophe" that "exceeded the foresight of the planners" by the Secretary of Homeland Security, Michael Chertoff, who led the federal government's inept response.
Whatever plan was executed, it was a dismal failure. Many of Katrina's shortcomings were highly publicized but the one that garnered the least attention was the widespread and often horrific abuse of trapped, then displaced, prisoners -- prisoners who were already suffering miserably in a dilapidated criminal justice system that was torn asunder when the broken levees washed away its veil of secrecy, disinformation and hypocrisy to expose the human suffering within.
In late August 2005, America watched with trepidation as the storm approached Louisiana. Some people chose to stay, others heeded evacuation orders. Even some prisoners in jails outside New Orleans were evacuated. But hell was coming for the prisoners of Old Parish Prison (OPP) and other prisoners who had been evacuated into OPP. They were held captive by an incompetent sheriff without a viable plan for the approaching catastrophe.
Blatantly ignoring repeated warnings to evacuate and offers of assistance from the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections (DOC), Sheriff Marlin N. Gusman packed the OPP beyond capacity, mostly with pre-trial detainees held on minor charges who were presumed innocent, then added guards and their families and civilians from the surrounding neighborhood. As the levees broke and the flood waters rose, the lights, sanitation, food, and even guards at the jail quickly vanished. Terrified of drowning and with no rescue in sight, thousands of prisoners faced a horrifying ordeal for days, trapped within the bowels of OPP, with death lingering at the door.
When rescue finally came, prisoners were ferried by boats to a nearby bridge where they again faced abuse at the hands of their captors. Macings, beatings, Taserings and unchecked exposure to the blistering summer sun destroyed any concept of humanity that Americans might mistakenly believe they harbor in a so-called free society. No food, no water, no shelter, no medical care, no compassion. The abuses continued after prisoners were removed to temporary holding facilities. Had this happened anywhere else the American government would have cried foul and told blood-curdling tales of torture, but to its own citizens it turned a blind eye.
When the smoke cleared and the waters receded, New Orleans and its justice system lay in ruins. Along with piles of discarded lifetimes found throughout the shattered city, crucial records, evidence and public defenders to protect the rights of the accused were gone. Courts were closed and defendants were scattered throughout the state, yet they still suffered horrible abuse just because they were from New Orleans.
The Orleans Parish Prison
Despite its name, OPP is not a prison but a county jail, mostly filled with pre-trial detainees and those serving short sentences for misdemeanors and petty offenses. After viewing the New Orleans jail system, infamous for its deplorable conditions, noted French historian Alexis de Tocqueville wrote, "The place containing condemned criminals could not by any stretch of the imagination be called a prison; it's a frightful cesspool into which the prisoners are dumped and which is suitable only for those unclean animals one finds there with them. It is noteworthy that all those detained there are not slaves; it's the prison of free men." How apropos.
While these words were penned in 1832, nearly a century and a half later, in 1970, a federal court concluded that "the conditions of confinement in Orleans Parish Prison so shock the conscience as a matter of elemental decency and are so much more cruel than is necessary to achieve a legitimate penal aim that such confinement constitutes cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution." See: Hamilton v. Schiro, 338 F.Supp. 1016 (E.D. La. 1970).
Time has changed little except OPP?s size. In 1970, OPP regularly housed 800 to 900 prisoners, though it was designed to hold half that number. Louisiana's current attorney general, Charles Foti, was elected Criminal Sheriff in 1974 (New Orleans has both a Criminal Sheriff and a Civil Sheriff). Under Foti's 30-year tenure he expanded the jail system, increasing occupancy tenfold, despite New Orleans having 100,000 fewer residents than when he became Sheriff. When Hurricane Katrina struck, OPP held nearly 8,000 prisoners (including evacuees from other jails) plus civilians. This included 2,000 state prisoners for which the current Criminal Sheriff, Marlin Gusman, received $24.39 per prisoner per day -- $2.00 more than he was paid for housing pre-trial detainees. This was a serious incentive to keep the commodity-laden OPP full to maximize the sheriff's cash crop of prisoners.
OPP's 2005 average daily occupancy of 6,846 prisoners made OPP the eighth largest jail in the country, in a city that was the thirty-fifth most populated. This gave pre-Katrina New Orleans the dishonor of having the highest incarceration rate of any large city, at 1,480 prisoners per 100,000 residents -- double the average incarceration rate of the United States, which is already the highest of any country. OPP-s population before Katrina was 90 percent black while the city population was two-thirds black.
OPP, the largest detention facility in Louisiana, is located in a run-down part of downtown New Orleans referred to as Mid-City and is comprised of 12 buildings, including:
~ Intake and Processing Center, where detainees and post-trial prisoners are processed before transfer to other OPP buildings.
~ Central Lockup, housing detainees being booked and awaiting assignment or trial.
~ House of Detention, one of the oldest buildings, housing state and federal detainees.
~ Conchetta, housing about 670 women plus juveniles.
~ South White Street, housing juveniles shared with the city-owned Youth Study Center.
~ Community Corrections Center, housing prisoners participating in rehabilitation programs.
~ Fisk Work Release.
~ Templeman I through Templeman V, the remaining five buildings, housing male prisoners (and some females in Templeman IV) serving sentences for various minor offenses.
Approaching this behemoth jail was a behemoth storm whose name is forever seared into the brains of its survivors: Hurricane Katrina.
The Approaching Catastrophe and Chaos at OPP
Katrina was born as a tropical depression 175 miles southeast of the Bahamas on Tuesday, August 23, 2005. In one day it became a tropical storm, then a Category 1 hurricane, slicing across the Florida Peninsula, killing 14 people, and into the Gulf of Mexico as a Category 2 hurricane. Gaining strength, by August 28 Katrina had surged its way up the Category ladder to the top: a Category 5, the most dangerous, with winds exceeding 155 miles per hour. The massive storm then headed for a second landfall near New Orleans.
New Orleans was built like a soup bowl pressed into the sand, sitting seven to ten feet below sea level. The city began on natural high ground in 1700 which became the French Quarter, and was later expanded over drained wetlands with earthen levees built with prison labor. These levees were dynamited in 1927 to save the French Quarter during one of New Orleans' many disasters. The levees were rebuilt, expanded, and in the 1960s constructed to withstand a "fast moving Category 3" hurricane. A 2004 hurricane simulation codenamed Pam indicated a slow moving Category 3 would flood New Orleans. The Pam simulation was a test of New Orleans' emergency response capabilities. As Hurricane Katrina approached, the lessons of Pam were ignored or forgotten and the tragedy began to unfold.
Friday, August 26, 2005: The prisoners' descent into chaos begins while Hurricane Katrina, then rated at Category 3, was still days away. OPP turns off prisoner phones, preventing them from learning about loved ones who were being evacuated. One female prisoner recounts how distraught she became and was "pushed back by guards because I was crying, asking why did they turn the phones off. I wanted to know if my kids were okay." For some it will be many weeks before they know if their families even survived, adding to the emotional and psychological anguish.
OPP continues to fill up over the next two days, as it had for weeks leading up to the storm, with detainees accused of such offenses as riding a bicycle with one hand, angling without a license, loitering, public intoxication, failure to pay traffic fines or child support, begging, sleeping in public and reading Tarot cards without a license, even though the Mayor issues a non-mandatory evacuation order. Even when the order becomes mandatory and President Bush declares a state of emergency, OPP continues to swell with prisoners at an alarming rate.
Saturday, August 27: OPP is placed on lockdown. Prisoners are aware an evacuation is in progress from incoming prisoners and news reports.
Deputies begin abandoning their posts and food distribution ceases.
Thousands go hungry, abandoned, afraid for themselves and their loved ones. Hurricane Katrina is 48 hours away.
Meanwhile, the Louisiana Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (LSPCA) evacuates 263 animals, carefully fitting each with a tracking collar and taking digital photographs so all would be accounted for. The LSPCA was following its carefully detailed emergency evacuation plan mandatorily implemented "for Category 3 hurricanes and above." If only New Orleans' prisoners were so cared for.
Sunday, August 28: Televisions are turned off, blocking all news reports of the pending catastrophe. Outlying jails like the St. Bernard Perish Prison are evacuated into OPP. In all, nearly 2,000 more prisoners pack the OPP. (In a fortuitous happenstance, these extra prisoners exceeded OPP's capacity, leaving hundreds in common areas, dayrooms and recreation areas where they could more easily gain access to materials such as pipes and bars to help trapped prisoners escape flooding cells.) Guards and food are scarce. Panic begins to set in.
OPP reaches overload as guards, their families and civilians from the surrounding neighborhood fill the cramped complex. Sheriff Gusman is informed that supplies, especially food and medicine, are insufficient. Gusman responds "those are incidentals and we'll deal with them later." Prisoners in Conchetta are ordered to move deputies' belongings to the third floor but are told to leave the food on the soon-to-be-flooded first floor.
Meanwhile, Katrina, nearly 400 miles wide with winds approaching 200 miles per hour, is ten hours away. Louisiana Governor Kathleen Babineaux Blanco and New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin order the first mandatory evacuation in New Orleans history but exclude essential sheriff's personnel and prisoners. Gusman announces, "we're going to keep our prisoners where they belong."
Monday, August 29: Hurricane Katrina drops from a Category 5 to a Category 3 as it approaches New Orleans. By 3:00 a.m., a 25-foot high storm surge (breaking the 22-foot record of Hurricane Camile in 1969) hits the canals. The Mississippi river rises 11 feet before Katrina reaches land east of New Orleans. The canals are now rapidly rising as a 15-foot wave surges up the Intercoastal Waterway and smashes into the Industrial Canal. The Lower Ninth Ward is hit with a ten-foot surge. Water exceeds the levee's walls by five feet. The 17th Street and London Avenue canals also give way. The soup bowl is filling up and OPP is smack dab at the bottom. Five levees are breached, leaving 75 to 80 percent of Greater New Orleans under water.
OPP prisoners are trapped in their cells. As the storm hits, the power goes out and with it the sewage system. Backup generators stop when they run out of fuel or are flooded when the levees break. "Once the power went out, deputies started quitting right and left," OPP guard Renard Reed stated. "They didn't leave the building of course, but they just didn't go back to work." Cells fill with bacteria-ridden sewer water, heavy with oil and gas, in addition to human waste backing up through the toilets and from prisoners who have no other option to relieve themselves. "Women were made to urinate and defecate over the sides of the beds into the water," reports one prisoner from Templeman IV.
OPP's Medical Director, Dr. R. Demaree Inglese, later commented that the flood water was so toxic that it stripped all the skin off his chest. He said he "even treated deputies with trench foot, something people used to get during World War I. The skin was peeling off their muscles. That's how bad it was in that water."
Prisoners burn Styrofoam trays and other material for light, which fills the unconditioned, unventilated air with thick smoke. To many death seems imminent. No food, no water, no light, no power, no plumbing, no guards. If there's a hell, it's called OPP.
Sheriff Gusman finally calls the Louisiana DOC for evacuation help, now that all of his patrol cars and hundreds of New Orleans buses are under water. The DOC reports that at approximately 11:15 p.m., almost 21 hours after the storm surge hit New Orleans, someone from Gusman's office finally called for evacuation assistance. Angola reported it was ready to assist with the evacuation and receive OPP evacuees days before Katrina hit land.
For most prisoners trapped at OPP, their last meal was Sunday morning. The Templeman buildings are flooded waist deep. Panicked prisoners start breaking walls and doors, not trying to escape but rather attempting to avoid imminent death. Remaining guards shoot bean bags and rubber bullets to keep the prisoners trapped inside. Undaunted, prisoners break through granite walls and reinforced doors with bloody fists.
In Templeman III, female prisoners are locked in with males. Some sick prisoners are moved to a small gym where they remain for three days without food or water. Guards spray so much mace trying to keep prisoners in the flooded buildings that the chemicals cause paint to peel off the walls. Some prisoners are handcuffed to cell bars; cuffs are also used to keep prisoners locked inside flooding cells where they were forcing the doors open in desperate survival attempts.
Tuesday, August 30: In New Orleans alone, 500,000 people are displaced; 200,000 homes destroyed; 350,000 cars flooded and 250,000 animals abandoned along with about 8,000 prisoners. Civilization is breaking down everywhere but no more so than inside OPP.
Some prisoners are moved, a few at a time, by boat to the nearby Broad Street Overpass at I-10, where they'll begin several more days of cruel abuse. Many who remain trapped inside OPP struggle to keep from drowning. Some are shot and maced by overzealous SID (Special Investigations Division) guards. A few House of Detention prisoners receive one slice of cheese and water from trash cans "while the food that was for the prisoners was given to the guards' families," according to a House of Detention guard. Most prisoners receive nothing. The remaining available food and bottled water goes to the guards, many of whom flaunt the provisions in front of hungry and thirsty prisoners.
Wednesday, August 31: With water exceeding five feet high in cells, Templeman IV is evacuated to Templeman III, but there is still no electricity, plumbing, food or water. Some prisoners resort to drinking contaminated water. Templeman I and III begin evacuation to the I-10 Overpass along with the House of Detention and Conchetta. Guards escorting prisoners to I-10 mace and Taser them; some are shot with bean bags or rubber bullets.
Thursday, September 1: The rest of Templeman IV and Conchetta women arrive at I-10; some receive apples, Cheetos and water. Hours later they are bused to Angola, the first women to be held at the infamous men's prison in nearly four decades. Meanwhile, wading through water six feet deep, Templeman V prisoners are forced to evacuate without assistance. As with evacuations in other areas, larger prisoners help the smaller ones, some riding on other's shoulders or being carried, or floating on debris. Templeman I evacuates and the prisoners there see guards for the first time since Monday.
Friday, September 2: As the last OPP prisoners arrive at I-10, the single largest prison evacuation in United States history is complete. The week in OPP hell does not come to an end, however; instead, it now begins at the Overpass.
Broad Street Overpass
The Broad Street Overpass is a bridge over I-10. Prisoners were dropped off by boat at the on-ramp and had to walk through chest-deep water to the would-be safety of the bridge. Some prisoners stayed at the I-10 location for hours while others were there, exposed, for days without food or water while guards drank bottled water in front of them. Prisoners from all areas who were brought to the Overpass were made to sit back-to-back and cuffed together. Eventually they needed to stretch as their muscles tightened or became numb, but if they stood or in some cases just barely moved, they were maced. Many passed out; others were maced for standing up or were reportedly attacked by dogs. As the guards ate and drank in front of them, the prisoners began to move and ask for food, and were maced again. When mace was used, everyone in the area was maced and suffered without the ability to clean off the caustic chemicals.
Some prisoners had to urinate and defecate where they sat, while others were literally ordered to do so. One female wrote that she "had to urinate behind a truck with a rifle pointed at me." Another wrote that she and others were "on our menstruation and had no sanitary napkins to change our old ones. We wore what we had for three days, some of us had menstrual blood all over us."
The Overpass environment was torturous as well. The hot New Orleans summer sun baked prisoners and roasted the skin of those forced to sit on the scorching concrete, breathing unbearably humid air. Ants and other insects, scrambling for safety, were everywhere. Some prisoners sat on the Overpass from Tuesday until Friday. Many fainted, collapsing from dehydration and heat exhaustion.
The DOC built a scaffold so the prisoners could climb down to vans and buses to transport them to one of several holding facilities. Elderly, pregnant and wounded prisoners were told to "hurry down the scaffolding," and when they could not they were pushed, kicked or maced, and in some instances reportedly thrown into the water below. The prisoners were dispersed from the Overpass to 38 prisons and jails throughout Louisiana, where for many the real torment began.
Hunt Correctional Center
Thousands of evacuated prisoners were taken to the Elayn Hunt Correctional Center in St. Gabriel, 70 miles northwest of New Orleans.
They were placed in a yard for days on wet grass that was soon covered with urine and feces. Then it rained, drenching the exposed prisoners massed on the muddy field. All custody levels were thrown together. The guards stood behind the fence surrounding the yard in what they referred to as a "gun-line." Some prisoners, distraught from the recent happenings and conditions, attacked each other like animals. Many were too weak to defend themselves.
Once at Hunt, prisoner Raphael Schwarz was placed on the field, where he witnessed fights and assaults with shanks and other weapons. "I did not see an officer on the football field in the three days I spent there," Schwarz said.
Hundreds of prisoners suffered on the yard at Hunt without necessary medication. They were not given showers or a change of clothes. One blanket was issued to each prisoner, which was stolen from many. If you didn't "group up" you were beaten, raped or stabbed, a survivor reported. The guards would toss sandwiches over the fence in the middle of the crowd "like they were in New Orleans at the Mardi Gras!" reported another. The guards would watch prisoners fight over the food and laugh.
One man was beaten and stabbed repeatedly, and when he tried to crawl away guards maced and shot him, then finally threw him in the back of a truck and hauled him off. Ronnie Lee Morgan, Jr., stated, "I wasn't on Hunt yard more than 30 minutes, and I was beaten and stabbed one time in the head and one time in the back of the neck, by several gang members...." Morgan was one of several prisoners in federal protective custody "with bold white letters on our sweatshirts that read 'FEDERAL.' The Warden said he didn't care." In September 2006, the Louisiana ACLU filed suit on behalf of Morgan, charging Sheriff Gusman, Hunt Warden Cornel Huber and a Hunt prison guard with civil rights violations. See: Morgan v. Gusman, USDC D. La., Case No. 2:06-cv-05700-ILRL-KWR.
Many prisoners developed rashes and skin infections. One prisoner said, "I had all kinds of sores on me from being wet so long." He also "had sunburn all over my body" from exposure at the Overpass and the yard at Hunt. At least one prisoner reportedly suffered a stroke while sitting in the yard. Many did not feel they had been rescued, but rather placed in guard-driven hell.
Jena Correctional Facility
Some abuse turned into active torture. The Jena Correctional Facility housed prisoners from several evacuated areas, but some would rather have drowned. Jena held evacuees from Jefferson Parish, St. Bernard Parish, Calcasieu Parish, Dixon Correctional Center, David Wade Correctional Center and Hoyle Rehabilitation Center, along with many OPP evacuees. Previously a juvenile detention facility operated by the Geo Group (formerly Wackenhut Corrections), Jena was closed in 2000 by the Department of Justice due to problems that included physical abuse, mistreatment of youths and lack of routine medical care. It was temporarily re-opened after Katrina and staffed mainly with guards from the David Wade Correctional Center and ten from New York City's Rikers Island jail.
As prisoners were packed on buses awaiting transfer to Jena, the plastic handcuff ties used to restrain them were affixed so tightly they made the prisoners' wrists bleed. Some say they never regained feeling in their hands. Dark purple scars were visible a month later on over 100 prisoners' wrists. Most of the prisoners were pretrial detainees being held on municipal charges such as public intoxication, failure to pay minor traffic violations, misdemeanor offenses, and charges never accepted by the district attorney. Some were past their pre-determined release dates.
Attorney Rachel I. Jones visited Jena after complaints of abuse surfaced. She discovered conditions such as prisoners who could not be located but were on the Jena roster, no working kitchen, no grievance procedure in place (to thwart exhaustion of remedies required by the Prison Litigation Reform Act in an attempt to prevent lawsuits over the abuses), and one Major Brad Rogers who falsely informed prisoners that Governor Blanco and DOC Secretary Stalder had declared "martial law," granting the staff authority to do whatever they wanted with impunity. Jones said prisoners "slipped desperate notes into my hand." One note read "it's going to be worse when y'all leave. I was beaten 9-28-05."
As prisoners arrived at Jena many had their heads shaved, despite there being no such policy in effect, and were stripped naked and forced to stand "dick-to-ass?" for hours, several prisoners reported. They were marched to chow that way and when returned to their cells were forced to lay face down. If they moved they were physically assaulted. Prisoners were beaten with belts, threatened with dogs, shocked with stun guns and Tasers, and then assaulted when they tried to report the abuse. The Rikers Island guards told them "we're going to show you boys how we do it in New York." Prisoner Keith Dillon said, "it was like we were practicing dummies for these sickos in this sick ordeal." A spokesman for the New York Department of Correctional Services said "all the reports have been positive" from the ten guards sent and "I seriously doubt any of our personnel would be involved in that type of behavior."
Phyllis Mann, a leading defense attorney and activist, discovered "a frightening narrative" emerging from former Jena prisoners she interviewed at a prison in Winn where 60 Jena prisoners were later transferred. More descriptions emerged such as the guards' fondness for dragging prisoners out of bed, often by the hair (if it was not shaved off), and beating them by slamming their heads onto the floor or into the wall. Or guards forcing prisoners to hop like bunnies on tables. Or threatening to force prisoners to perform sex acts on guards. Mann and other defense attorneys said they saw evidence of beatings and abuse, including welts, swollen eyes, bruised faces and heads, chipped teeth and deep handcuff marks -- all consistent with the prisoners' stories.
Conditions were so bad that on September 30, 2005, a lawsuit was filed to have the U.S. Department of Justice seize immediate control. The Louisiana Legislature then asked state officials, including the head of the state police, to investigate. Human Rights Watch wrote DOC Secretary Stadler on October 3, 2005 and Jena was closed six days later, after 37 days of wretchedness.
At Bossier Parish Maximum Security Jail, 500 minimum to medium security-prisoners, mostly black, experienced blatant brutality. Bossier City is only 22.7 percent black while the evacuees were nearly 90 percent black. Prisoner Ivy Gisclair was maced with pepper spray then repeatedly Tasered, beaten, Tasered and beaten again, all in the same vicious assault.
Reports from Ouachita Parish Correctional Center reflected the same violent treatment as prisoners were Tasered, maced and regularly beaten. They were fed by guards sliding the trays on the floor "the same way you would feed a dog," wrote one prisoner.
To varying degrees the oppressive, suppressive and depressive distress inflicted on the OPP evacuees occurred at all 38 temporary holding facilities. From minor misery to torturous abuse, the OPP survivors became victims of guards' follies ranging from prejudice to malice. "They were all just evil," said Dillon. "It was like you could see it in them. I could feel it."
The Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola had the best reviews from male and female evacuees alike. Hundreds of women were removed to this all-male maximum security facility, which holds over 5,000 prisoners.
Guards stated the evacuees came in looking like they had traveled "directly from hell." The women praised their treatment at Angola, saying it was better than the pre-Katrina OPP. They received clothing, showers, proper medical care, personal and hygiene supplies, and three meals a day.
In contrast, some women were taken to the Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women (LCIW). Many remained there in early 2006, complaining "about being kept on 23-hour lockdown for months ... long delays in getting medication, no distribution of clothes given to the resident population. Sleeping on the floor for the first three months and a continuing lack of access to phones and ... family visiting." Racked with worry over five months after Katrina, these evacuees finally were allowed to use phones and receive visits.
Even the male prisoners stated that they and handicapped prisoners were treated with respect and kindness at Angola. Other facilities should learn from Angola's example. It is a sad day when one of the nation's most notoriously brutal prisons, and a former slave plantation, is Louisiana's shining example of decency. Of course it's all relative to the surviving prisoners' point of view, having just survived the chaos of OPP.
Or maybe this was because Angola Warden Burl Cain and his wife, Jonalyn, were busy establishing New Angola South (also known as Camp Greyhound or Camp Amtrak, until those transportation companies complained), at the New Orleans bus and train depot. Warden Cain apparently believed the first resource needed by any city reduced to rubble was a jail. He even hung a sign outside that read "we are taking New Orleans back." Cain said it was "a real start to rebuilding this city."
In the Wake of Katrina's Chaos
A team of dedicated lawyers, law students, activists, the National Lawyers Guild, American Civil Liberties Union and Human Rights Watch tried to account for all evacuated prisoners, despite Sheriff Gusman's attempts to block their efforts. But such a complete accounting may never be possible, reports the ACLU, as there does not appear to be an entirely accurate list of the prisoners held in OPP during Katrina. Some prisoners for whom fugitive arrest warrants were later issued have not been captured over a year later. Bodies are still being found in New Orleans and 49 remained unidentified as of July 6, 2006, according to the Orleans Parish coroner's office. FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, also admits "it's likely many of the lost will not be found." The post-chaos investigations by lawyers and law students, the State Department, the Department of Justice and the news media exposed the abuses of OPP and the Broad Street Overpass during the disaster and the continued abuse far beyond Katrina's initial impact.
The denials of food, water and medical care; the failure to provide safe and sanitary conditions; subjecting prisoners to racially motivated verbal and physical abuse; and refusal to allow prisoners to contact family members violated all domestic and international standards of human decency as well as local, state and federal laws.
In the wake of the Hurricane Katrina tragedy, amid reports of not only prisoner abuses but Sheriff Gusman's ineptitude, Gusman spoke out against all who came forward. The Sheriff claimed he had "75 accounts from inmates given by lawyers with misleading questions. It's kind of hilarious to read them." The apparently amused sheriff goes on to discredit the sources by saying "none of it was true ... Don't rely on crack-heads, cowards and criminals to say what the story is."
Neal Walker, Director of the Louisiana Capital Assistance Center and a Louisiana criminal defense attorney who helped compile statements from prisoners in most of the 38 receiving facilities, was incensed by Gusman's flippant remark. "Gusman's 'crack-head and criminal' comment is appalling and insensitive and betrays a fundamental ignorance of the fact that many of these prisoners were presumed innocent and at the end of a very long day, many of them were released without being charged,' Walker said. 'As a lawyer who interviewed hundreds and hundreds of these prisoners from Caddo Parish to Cottonport to Bossier Parish I can tell you that to a person we heard very consistent stories from prisoner to prisoner. These guys didn't have time to get together and compare notes because they were isolated from each other by hundreds of miles."
Gusman stands almost alone in his denial of the OPP horrors. One exception is DOC Secretary Richard Stalder, who quipped that the prisoners held on minor charges before Katrina "will never be late on child support payments again."
OPP guards were stranded and abandoned by Gusman, too. One guard who spoke out, Renard Reed, said, "after we got all the prisoners out we thought it would be okay. But after they were gone there were no more boats. The sheriff was gone too -- he really wasn't worried about us deputies."
Christina Foster spent the last two years before Katrina as a guard in the House of Detention. The only evacuation plan she was aware of was the fire escape plan on the wall. She said there was barely enough food for the guards during the chaos, let alone the prisoners. They were ordered to handcuff cell doors together to keep prisoners in when the power to the doors failed. She was fired after Katrina for missing her deadline to report. "Gusman let his own down," she said.
Dr. Inglese, OPP's Medical Director, described the horror from his side of the bars. While at the Community Corrections Center prisoners at risk of drowning broke out of their cells, bashing their way through granite walls and reinforced doors. It took them two days but by Wednesday they were at the lobby entrance, dozens of bruised and bloody fists pounding at the door. These prisoners "were hard core people," said Dr. Inglese, "some of them were federal prisoners, rapists and murderers. They were scared, they were thirsty, and they were coming out. It was very scary." He noted that the prisoners were driven to that point after they were abandoned in the jail.
On the other side of the lobby door were guards, doctors, nurses, civilians and children, who all prepared for the onslaught. Some had hand guns, some batons, some broom or mop handles, others metal legs from cots. According to Richard A. Webster, who wrote several exposés on OPP's failures for the New Orleans City Business newspaper, former members of the sheriff's office agreed that "the violent scene as described by Inglese typified the chaos that exploded inside the prison in the days that followed the hurricane."
Sheriff Gusman steadfastly claimed the tales of rising water in the buildings were also lies. Gusman maintained the water wasn't past his hip. Photos from inside OPP tell a different story. Also, anyone outside the facility can see water stains on the walls that reach well above the sheriff's patrol cars.
Gusman also denied there were any escapes during the chaos. In doing so, he seemed "more concerned with [his own] public relations issues than public safety," said Rafael Goyeneche, Crime Commission President. Gusman later changed his story to admit two escapes after they were exposed by the mainstream media. Yet his office quietly issued 14 fugitive warrants once the count of the evacuees at all 38 holding facilities was complete.
David Fernandez spent 72 hours in a dark, flooded OPP jail with hundreds of hungry and panicked prisoners when he had a chance to swim free. He took it. Meeting surprisingly little resistance, Fernandez escaped and, with the help of civilians in a boat, made it to safety. He detailed his plight to The Times-Picayune, including escaping with other prisoners, but did not reveal his location. Another escapee, George Schaefer III, now faces a possible death sentence for shooting a Mississippi man and stuffing his body in a freezer while on the run from the flooded OPP.
The Louisiana ACLU filed a massive public records request with Sheriff Gusman seeking complete information on the events surrounding the evacuation. Joe Cook, Executive Director of the Louisiana ACLU, said "the public deserves to know the truth about what really happened inside and why it fell into complete chaos while surrounding parishes managed to evacuate guards and prisoners to safety."
Gusman stonewalled the requests, and Louisiana state lawmakers pushed legislation to make Gusman and his henchmen immune from suit over his negligent actions. George Steimel from the Louisiana Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers argued against the bill because the sheriff, acting as custodian, had a legal responsibility toward each prisoner.
Cook said what was done to the prisoners "was inhumane, cruel, and we should not add insult to injury by depriving them of their rights."
The biggest overall criticism of Sheriff Gusman was his complete failure to have an evacuation or other emergency contingency plan. Numerous guards like Christina Foster reported near total confusion as commanders issued conflicting orders. One guard reported that "when we got there they hadn't told us anything. They kept telling us they were waiting to see what the sheriff was going to say. No procedures, no safety precautions. No evacuation plan. The sheriff shouldn't be the head of nothing."
In the aftermath of Katrina the ACLU sought the sheriff's disaster plan, only to be denied at first, then told all copies were under water, and later informed that the plan's custodian couldn't be found. The ACLU noted it defied common sense that all copies were underwater when all jail commanders, at the very least, should have had a copy. When a "patently inadequate" two-page plan was eventually produced, the ACLU could not tell if it pre-existed Hurricane Katrina, in which case it would have been useless if followed, or was fraudulently produced in response to a motion for contempt for Gusman's failure to produce the plan.
Testimonials from Those Who Survived
Testimonials contradicting Sheriff Gusman's self-serving comments, collected from thousands of OPP prisoners and guards who came forward, would fill several issues of PLN. The ACLU alone collected more than 1,000 testimonials; Human Rights Watch interviews also exceeded 1,000, and Phyllis Mann and her crew conducted nearly 3,000 interviews in September 2005 alone. What's most telling in each person's individual story is the consistency of abuse suffered by OPP prisoners. Several representative testimonials are summarized below.
Richard Brady had worked for OPP as the medical supply officer less than a year at the time of the storm. In the days before Katrina he was never consulted regarding making any emergency preparations. He reported to duty on August 29. Brady said, "my supervisor, the Medical Director [Dr. Inglese], was not included in any of the planning meetings for the storm either." He stated that at a meeting on the Sunday of the storm, guards told the Sheriff about the lack of needed supplies.
Brady was in the Community Corrections Center building when the storm hit. He said that as the water rose the situation became more volatile, and prisoners were breaking through the walls in an attempt to free themselves from the rising water. "I was unable to access my office and supply rooms," Brady said, so he set up a makeshift supply and triage room on the first floor. He said it was very hot and stuffy where he was, and that "conditions had to be much worse on the prisoners' tiers."
On Tuesday, August 30, Brady took a boat and then waded through chest-deep water to supply the House of Detention. The water there "was filled with feces, diesel fuel, dead rats, garbage and other debris," he noted.
Back at the Community Corrections Center the deputies were rationing food among themselves while the prisoners received nothing. "No one, including the deputies, seemed to know when or whether help was going to arrive. The administration and the sheriff failed us miserably and communication was non-existent," Brady said. "Gusman's claims that the evacuation was peaceful, methodical and cooperative are not true. It was nothing but chaos. People need to understand that we should never have been there in the first place." When the DOC arrived, Brady watched snipers on the roof of the House of Detention building shooting at prisoners. "I thought I was in a war zone."
Rhonda Ducre had been a deputy stationed at the House of Detention for four years when Hurricane Katrina hit. She received a memo from the sheriff's office stating that all employees were obligated to work or face termination. Ducre reported to work on August 28 and brought her husband, four children and a few close friends with her. She stated that "in my four years there has never been a plan for what to do when hurricanes hit. There was no preparation for the storm."
Ducre said the generators worked after the storm hit on Monday until the evening when the levees broke. The kitchen was under water. She said this was when it got really hectic. Prisoners "knew the water was rising and couldn't get in touch with their families.... They hadn't eaten." Then the supervisor broke out the shotguns and her kids were terrified.
Ducre was four months pregnant; she had cramps and spotting. After her shift she was moved to the third floor with the general population because of her condition. The nurses told her supervisor she needed rest, but she was told she had better report to duty or not bother reporting at all.
On Wednesday, the DOC initiated removal of the prisoners. She said "the deputies had food to feed themselves and we wanted to put all our food together so that we could ration it. When the deputies were out of food, however, I went out onto the mezzanine of the building and found supervisors barbequing, surrounded by 50 cases of water."
Ducre was evacuated on Friday, after all the prisoners were gone. "I did see Sheriff Gusman in a boat riding to the bridge on Friday, but I never saw him during the storm." She returned to New Orleans to resign in January 2006. "Sheriff Gusman's people were reporting that he waded through the water to cut through the bars with handcuffs in his mouth," Ducre stated. "That man didn't touch that water and he didn't try to tell anyone no different."
Duane Lewis had been a guard since 2002. Reporting to work on Sunday, August 28, he brought enough food and medicine for his diabetes to last three days. His family had already been evacuated. "I didn't go with them because I'd been told at Academy class that if you don?t report to work, you can be arrested for negligence of duty."
About 5:30 a.m. on Monday they completely lost power, leaving the cell doors inoperable. "On some floors, the deputies had to take leg shackles and tie them around the cell doors to prevent the inmates from getting out." He injured his foot during this process.
On Tuesday, he was stationed to keep people from swimming up to the building. He witnessed other deputies shooting windows out for ventilation. He saw prisoners maced with pepper spray and forced outside.
The refrigeration system failed and Lewis' insulin went bad. Out of food and medicine, he tried to "suck it up" and help others. "At one point, I called my mother and told her, in case I don't make it out, I want you to have it in the record that we are not being thought of. There is no food, water, or any form of sanitation." Lewis said they were told "you better not break those (vending) machines to get to the food." The milk in the machines, for example, went sour. "All that food could have been used to feed people! We had children in there with us."
On Friday, Lewis was dropped off by boat onto the Overpass with no other guards in sight. With his foot now in bad condition he managed to get himself into a helicopter, which took him to the airport. He made his way to a hospital where he learned that gangrene had set in. Lewis went from walking on crutches to using a wheelchair.
Standing in sewage for hours without his insulin had caused severe problems. "When I called in and filed my first report to try to get workman's compensation for the injury, they denied me and told me my injury wasn't work related. To this day, I cannot work.... I am two inches from being put on the street."
Lewis says Sheriff Gusman lied about a lot of the situation and was not the "man among men" he should have been. "All I wanted to hear is thanks, job well done." Instead, Gusman sent him a form stating what Lewis owed for his equipment.
Dan Bright was in a receiving cell in Templeman III. "We were strictly abandoned, they just left us. When we realized what was going on it was too late." With the guards gone, Bright and others had to break out of top level cells and get to the bottom level to save the prisoners there. When they arrived on the bottom level, he said "It was total chaos. The water was up to our chest. You had guys laying in the water trying to climb to the top bunks." By kicking the cell doors off their hinges they were able to free themselves and avoid drowning. "They left us to die there."
Bright and other prisoners eventually arrived at the Overpass, where they remained without food or water for three days. "We couldn't stand up. They made us sit down. We couldn't even get up and urinate. We had to urinate on ourselves."
Once transferred to Hunt, Bright was given a blanket, placed on a large yard, and left to fend for himself. He slept on the wet grass, had no where to urinate or defecate, fought to keep his blanket, and watched as once per day guards would toss sandwiches over the gate. Thousands scrambled for the food. "It was a melee," he observed.
Bright witnessed prisoners held on traffic offenses fighting for survival in the same open yard with the likes of Len Davis, a former New Orleans police officer. Davis was one of two former cops on Louisiana's death row for murder; he was returning for a court hearing when Katrina struck. Bright was finally transferred from Hunt to Rapides Parish three days later along with nearly 200 other evacuees, many with bad sunburns from exposure.
After failing to yield for a stop sign and with outstanding unpaid traffic tickets, Ivy Gisclair was sent to OPP. He was trapped for three days while people "were talking about how we were going to die, and about how they'd left us." He witnessed a prisoner jump free of a building and swim directly to the nearest guard's boat. "They pulled him into the boat and started kicking and punching him" for trying to escape death.
Gisclair was evacuated to Central Lockup, then to the Overpass and on to Hunt. His bone-chilling story of the Overpass and the Hunt yard are by now all too familiar for those survivors who witnessed the same horror. But for Gisclair, the wretched agony of Katrina would not go away.
Once Gisclair was cleared from the Hunt field he was taken to the Bossier Parish Maximum Security Jail. A few days later, on September 9, 2005, he was supposed to be released. When he brought his release to a guard's attention, the guard "started cursing me out." Gisclair was then pepper sprayed through the food slot, leaving him and his cellmate choking for air. His ordeal was far from over. In his own words, Gisclair writes:
"That guard later came back with a whole crowd of guards, including a big bald-headed white guy who seemed to tell all of the other guards what to do. From outside the cell they told the dude in the cell with me that when they opened the cell, he should come out. I could see that they were pointing a red light from a Taser at me and when I saw that, I knew they were going to come in and beat me up. I got on my knees with my hands on my head to show them I wasn't going to cause any problems. They walked in the cell and the big guy shot me with the Taser. When he stopped shocking me, the other guards all jumped on me and put handcuffs and leg shackles on me. Then they started beating me. Those wires from the Taser were still stuck in me, one in my chest and one in my stomach, so when he told them to get off me he started shocking me again, saying shit like "you like that, you like that!? He did that three times where he would shock me and then let them beat me up and then start shocking me again."
Gisclair awoke nude in an empty cell with not even a mattress or blanket, only some toilet paper. A guard returned and said "you all are animals. I'm gonna put you in the woods with the animals." Other guards said things to Gisclair like "you New Orleans niggers think you so bad." Ivy Gisclair is an American Indian.
Joyce Gilson had been a prisoner in Unit B of Templeman IV for approximately one year when Katrina hit. She was on the ground floor where the bunks were triple-stacked. Many in her open dorm slept on the floor due to lack of bed space. The phones were already disabled by Sunday, August 28, when the televisions were cut off, separating her from any outside information. She was told to pack her stuff because the guards were about to move her and her cellmates. That never happened. She said, "when the deputies locked the 'Yanks' [trustees] and us in the dorm, we didn't know what was happening, and we didn't see the deputies for a long time!"
When the power went out, "water backed up from commodes and sewer water from the flood came under the doors and filled up our unit to the second bunk." The elderly and at least one pregnant woman had a really hard time, she said. "My friend, Iris Hardeman, was really sick and we were worried about her." (Iris Hardeman later died at Angola).
One night, guards came with flashlights. Gilson and the other prisoners were told to leave everything behind. Water was up to her chest as they moved into Templeman III. "The men had already set fires in that dorm, which they did so the guards would get them out of there. But then they moved us in there instead." It was smoke-filled and hard to breathe. "We were coughing, black stuff was coming out of our noses. It was terrifying."
From there they were moved to Central Lockup, then to the Overpass. On the Overpass, the women were all handcuffed together with plastic cuffs. "There were ice chests full of bottled water. They could have given us a piece of ice or something. Some women reached in and that's when they maced us and put dogs on us." Civilians were trying to give them water, but the guards wouldn't let them. Gilson made it to Angola. "I thank God today that I am alive. The people from Angola said they came to the jail on Friday and Gusman refused to let them take us. If I had anything to tell him, it wouldn't be nothing nice."
It is gut-wrenching to read the testimonials compiled by the ACLU and volunteer lawyers, especially Phyllis Mann, who, with her volunteer assistants, tirelessly advocated on behalf of the evacuated prisoners. The most common statements were, "they left us to die" and "I thought I was going to die." Nearly 100 prisoners who spoke out remain unidentified for their own protection. They related stories of how "some deputies left their post talking about quitting their job." ... "We were just scared to die in the high water. We were hanging out of the windows with things saying 'HELP US' but no one came!" Other signs hung out windows read "WE NEED HELP" and "HELP NO FOOD DYING."
For more prisoner testimonials, see: www.aclu.org/prison/conditions/23418res20060111.html.
Another tragedy of Katrina was the children who were abandoned in OPP. Five days before Katrina arrived, Judge David Bell, now Chief Judge of the Orleans Parish Juvenile Court, ordered the release of most pre-trial juveniles not deemed a threat. His order was never followed.
Ashley George, 13, was housed in the Youth Study Center until Sunday, August 28, when she was moved to OPP. The day after the storm the water was up to her neck for several days. "We got no food, no water. I felt like I was going to die." Adult prisoners who escaped the facility came back with help. "Military people told us that if we had stayed in there another day we would have drowned," she stated.
Ashley's grandmother, Ruby Anne George, was going crazy trying to contact her without success. Ashley finally called her grandmother a month later on her uncle's phone. Ashley said "it's horrible. Nobody should have gone through that -- adults or children. They should have gotten them out of there in the first place. If it wasn't for the prisoners, we would have drowned."
Eddie Fenceroy, 14, watched guards feed their own children but not the juvenile prisoners. The guards later deserted with their families. Meanwhile, Eddie received no food or water. The lights went out and the water rose higher and higher. "The water was past our hips. Beaucoup feces was everywhere, and we hoped the water wouldn't go over our heads," he said. Eddie was evacuated to nearby fish farms (where prison slave labor raises 600,000 to 700,000 pounds of tilapia per year), then to the Broad Street Overpass. A year later he still has nightmares and is plagued by a foot fungus contracted during his three days in petroleum-laden, bacteria-infested water.
A reported 354 juveniles were held at OPP during Hurricane Katrina. They related the same stories of fear and abuse described in the testimonials of adult prisoners. Their stories are collected in a report released in May 2006 by the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana, titled Treated Like Trash: Juvenile Detention in New Orleans Before, During and After Hurricane Katrina.
Beyond the injuries and abuses suffered by prisoners during Hurricane Katrina, the New Orleans justice system itself lay in ruins. Of 42 public defenders, 39 were laid off because their funding came from traffic fines -- which were drastically reduced with nearly 80 percent of the city underwater. Over 200 police officers (ten percent of the police force) did not return; 84 others were fired, mainly for looting. Governor Blanco has called for the National Guard to continue patrolling New Orleans into 2007. Judges and prosecutors fled. Files, evidence and witnesses vanished. Most importantly, prisoner records disappeared. If not for the valiant efforts of activists such as Mann and her associates and other law school students, many prisoners in limbo may have spent many more months begging their captors for their overdue release.
While few cared about the fate of helpless prisoners, zoo keepers remained steadfast in protecting and caring for the animals in their charge. Moreover, volunteer teams rescued many of the city's 250,000 abandoned animals. Billy Sothern, a New Orleans anti-death penalty lawyer, wrote in The Nation: "Sadly, by orders of magnitude, there were more rescue people in Louisiana to protect the 'animal rights' of dogs than there were lawyers or activists to protect the human rights of thousands of our citizens." There are no known reports of animals being maced, Tasered, stunned, shot with bean bags or rubber bullets, or forced by their rescuers to go without food, water or medical care.
It took over 40 days to pump water from the flooded New Orleans soup bowl. More than 1,600 people had died and nearly a half-million were homeless. Despite unsubstantiated rumors of bodies floating in cellblocks, the number of prisoners who perished during Hurricane Katrina was small, but there has been no total number made public; however, their deaths were preventable. OPP prisoner Iris Hardeman, 53, was taking medications for a possible heart attack and stroke. When Katrina hit, Hardeman no longer received her medicine; untreated until she was evacuated to Angola, her body began to swell and she died while in intensive care. She was past her release date.
Tyrone Lewis, 44, had a pacemaker-defibrillator. Like others, Lewis spent days in the OPP chaos, wading through water followed by a stint on the Overpass. After several days without food or fresh water he was thrown onto the field at Hunt, where he was left to fend for himself. Lewis was finally taken to a hospital on September 14, where he died three days later. He was buried in a cemetery for unclaimed prisoners at Angola.
Phrases used to describe New Orleans just after Katrina include "a war zone," a "Third World country," "utter destruction," "downtown Bagdad," and "Beirut." Condemned homes slated for demolition were marked with an orange "X," and OPP should have been similarly marked.
Instead, Sheriff Gusman rushed to re-open part of OPP on October 17, 2005 to warehouse the constant flow of arrestees and maintain his fiefdom's cash flow. As some jail buildings were re-opened, however, there were no safeguards for health and safety, no emergency evacuation plans were in place, little medical care was available, and the buildings were full of mold, mildew and remnants of human waste, which posed a substantial hazard.
By August 6, 2006, OPP had expanded to about 1,800 prisoners. Hundreds are still scattered throughout Louisiana with no court date and no lawyers. Others were moved in November 2006 into eight FEMA-built high-tech tents outside OPP, which will fully reopen sometime in 2007.
Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Katrina prisoners were held long after their court dates and release dates, leading to lawsuits and threats of mass releases by criminal court judges. This over-detention became known as doing "Katrina time."
Shortly after the post-Katrina chaos subsided, Sheriff Gusman promised that he would put unpaid prisoners to work cleaning up Louisiana. This amounted to modern slavery, as most of his prisoners had yet to be convicted or were serving short sentences for minor offenses. The ACLU and Dollars and Sense described Gusman's plan as a "throwback to the notoriously racist convict-lease and state-use prison labor systems that proliferated in the South after Reconstruction."
Getting workers was easy using what its victims call "police sentencing," where indigent arrestees spend up to 60 days (for felonies) or 45 days (for misdemeanors) in jail waiting for prosecutors to file charges. With even those time limits suspended by the state supreme court after Katrina, new arrestees had limited choices: plead guilty and go to work on city cleanup crews, or enjoy a lengthy stay behind bars awaiting a severely backlogged court system.
All was not doom and gloom in the world of prison labor, however. At the Dixon Correctional Institute, volunteer prisoners cared for hundreds of dogs, ducks, geese, hens and roosters stranded by hurricanes Katrina and Rita. "This is my way to help out," said prisoner John Lloyd, who gave up a coveted outside assignment to care for the animals. "I'm from the New Orleans area and fortunate I didn't lose anything in the storm." Dogs were reportedly well-cared for at Angola as well.
Some ex-prisoners also stood up to lend a hand. Debbie Walker, general manager of the Motel 6 in Las Cruces, New Mexico and a former prisoner herself, organized volunteer prisoners at the Mount Pleasant Correctional Facility. They made thousands of cloth bags, stuffed animals and some hacky-sacks. Motel 6 employees in Las Cruces and Phoenix stuffed the bags with donated goods for children and adults and trucked them to Louisiana and Mississippi.
The Reconstruction and Reformation
With such a long history of abuse, corruption and dilapidation, it could be argued that New Orleans' justice system properly belonged in ruins so it could begin anew. "They're now able to start with a clean slate," said David Carrol, director of research and evaluation at the National Legal Aid and Defender Association. He added that "Katrina sort of ripped off the bandage and removed the pretension that the system was working." But now what to do?
A report released by the U.S. Justice Department in May 2006 called for the Orleans Parish public defender system to be scrapped, its staff replaced, its funding overhauled with a $10 million budget increase, and 70 public defenders hired to replace the former 42. "What really struck me is that the report really emphasizes the importance of structural change rather than band-aids," said Pamala R. Metzger, who now runs the criminal law clinic at Tulane Law School in New Orleans.
New Orleans needs money, fresh ideas and the political backing to make rebuilding a reality. The public defender program can no longer be financed by traffic ticket fines but needs to be funded with a legislatively-mandated budget, according to the Justice Department report. Justice can't begin to be equal until the public defenders are on par with prosecutors, who already have such funding. The report adds that until such changes are made, justice for the poor "is simply unavailable." Governor Blanco called for $20 million for the state indigent defense fund, double the minimum called for in the report. The funds were approved in June 2006.
Fresh ideas require fresh minds. A new board was selected to oversee the New Orleans indigent defender program. Rebuilding the public defender's office will affect about 85 percent of those arrested. The current practice of assigning part-time, overworked lawyers to courts, rather than to defendants, must be scrapped. Carroll says "public defenders see their job as keeping the assembly line moving as opposed to defending a client." A qualified, competent attorney with a reasonable case load should represent a client from start to finish, not piecemeal.
Carroll adds that "if federal and state taxpayers resources are to be used to reconstruct a better levee system to prevent future generations from being subjected to the horrors of another natural disaster, a similar barrier must also be built between the torrents of injustice and the poor -- a well-regulated, well-funded indigent defense system."
At the heart of the physical rebuilding is the OPP. While it is fiscally impractical to tear down the jail, the entire facility must be fully renovated and modernized, and a complete overhaul of the staffing system implemented from the Criminal Sheriff down. The OPP can no longer be the sheriff's private fiefdom. In addition to these reforms, the National Prison Project of the ACLU released several recommendations as part of its August 2006 report, including:
~ The Orleans Parish Criminal Sheriff?s Office and the City of New Orleans must design and implement a coordinated emergency plan to ensure that all prisons and jails are capable of quickly and safely evacuating before the next disaster strikes.
~ The OPP population and jail should be downsized by ending the practice of holding state and federal prisoners.
~ Reforms should be implemented to decrease the number of pre-trial detainees held at OPP.
~ A Blue Ribbon Commission should be convened to develop and implement a full set of recommendations for detention reform which should then be followed, not ignored.
~ An independent monitor should be appointed to review OPP policies, procedures, critical incidents, complaints and quality of complaint investigations.
~ The DOC must conduct regular audits of local jails holding state prisoners.
~ Finally, the U.S. Department of Justice should commence an investigation into the treatment of prisoners at OPP and at the various receiving facilities, to fully expose the human and civil rights violations that occurred.
While it may be possible to ride the post-Katrina rebuilding wave to secure funding to reconstruct the OPP and associated justice system, "the infusion of money will make people think that everything's fine, everything's copasetic," according to Dwight Doskey, a veteran public defender. "The justice system will get mired down in the same problems we have now," he cautions. The lesson is clear: Rebuild from scratch, rebuild with a fresh design, and rebuild it right.
As noted by Ron Dinnocenzo, Louisiana's Prison Fellowship Director, "only the dead [were] lower on the list to be helped than the prisoners" in the aftermath of Katrina. And they wouldn't have needed help so desperately if not for the complete failure of Sheriff Gusman to have even a basic disaster plan in place and to act upon that plan.
The government's failures during the worst natural disaster in American history occurred at every level. In a 600-page report, the result of a U.S. House of Representatives inquiry, those failures were characterized as "an abdication of the most solemn obligation to provide for the common welfare," and "in this cautionary tale, all the little pigs built houses of straw." In the straw house known as OPP, thousands of prisoners almost died while suffering inhumane, torturous conditions that were completely avoidable if government officials had done their job -- no, their duty -- to protect and care for all citizens, including those who were incarcerated.
A basic premise of our code of justice is curtailing most freedoms upon conviction or, for pre-trial detainees, upon being accused of a crime. But with this loss of liberty comes society's ethical and moral responsibility to care for prisoners' most basic needs until their freedom is restored. Anything less places our nation below Third World countries. And that's exactly where we belong until we face reality and make improvements. A crucial difference is that while prisoners are treated poorly in countries such as the Congo, Bangladesh and Brazil, it is because those are poor countries with limited resources. In the United States, a wealthy country, prisoners are treated poorly due to conscious policy decisions.
A century from now when Americans speak of black eyes our nation has suffered at the hands of its own, black eyes such as Waco, Wounded Knee, Scottsboro and Tuskegee; Attica, Watergate, Rodney King and Kent State -- defining moments of failure seared into our society's collective conscience -- that list must include the largest prison crisis caused by callous government ineptitude since the 1971 Attica rebellion: The plight of Katrina's prisoners.
Sources: ABC News, ACLU Media, Advertiser.com, TheAdvocate.com, Archaeology, Associated Press, Baltimore Sun, Billings Gazette (Mont.), Black Voice News, Black News Alliance, Bloomberg.net, Boston Globe, Building Safety Journal, Capitol News Bureau, CNews, Colorlines Magazine, Dallas Morning News, Dateline NBC, DC Prisonerhelp.org, The Denver Post, Discovery Channel, Dollars and Sense.org, Epoch Times, Express News.net, Findlaw, FoxNews.com, The Gazette (Colo. Springs), Harpers Magazine, TheHawkeye.com, Herald Sun, Houston Chronicle, Human Rights Watch, The Independent, InTheseTimes.com, KATC.com, KLFY.com, Knight Ridder Newspapers, KTBS.com, Los Angeles Times, MercuryNews.com, Miami Herald, The Nation, National Geographic, National Review Online, New America Media, New Orleans City Business, The New Standard, NBC Katrina Special, New York Times, Nola.com newslogs, Orlando Sentinel, PBS Nature, PBS Nova, Pueblo Chieftain (Colo.), Reuters, River Parishes Bureau, Rocky Mountain News, Rolling Stone, Salt Lake Tribune, Sandrine Ageorges, Shiloh Media Relations, Shreveport Times, smh.com, Star Telegram (Austin), Sun Herald, Texas Baptists Communications, New Orleans Times-Picayune, TuscaloosaNews.com, United Press International, USA Today, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Washington Times, West Bank Bureau, Wire Tap, and WLOX TV.
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