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Louisiana Prisoners Used as Slave Labor During Hurricane Ida, Families Left in the Dark for Weeks

by Brian Dolinar

When Hurricane Ida made landfall this past summer, it was the deadliest and most destructive to hit Louisiana since Hurricane Katrina. In 2005, many prisoners were not evacuated and left for days in their cells without food or clean water, standing chest-high in flood water.

This time around, prison officials evacuated some, and left others behind who were used essentially as slave labor to lay sandbags in preparation of the storm. Families went for weeks without getting a phone call from their loved ones, left to worry about their wellbeing. On top of everything, the hurricane happened in the midst of a pandemic, with the authorities unprepared to face the challenges.

Louisiana incarcerates more people per capita than any state in the US, with 1,094 out of every 100,000 residents behind bars. According to Prison Policy Initiative, Louisiana locks up a higher percentage of its population than any other nation. Among some 50,000 people incarcerated, about 12,000 are held at local jails in parishes, what Louisiana calls its counties.

On August 29, 2021, Hurricane Ida touched down in Louisiana as a Category 4 hurricane. In Louisiana, it left behind a recorded $25-35 billion in damages and 33 people dead. A state of emergency was declared, there was widespread flooding, and power was out in some areas for nearly a month. Ida also impacted other areas in the Caribbean, Gulf Coast states, and the Northeast United States.

During Hurricane Katrina, Marlin Gusman, sheriff of Orleans Parish, where New Orleans is located, refused to evacuate hundreds of people in the local jail despite an evacuation order issued by the mayor. Prisoners would “stay where they belong,” he said. This time, Sheriff Gusman—who remains in office 16 years later—made the decision to relocate 835 people in his jail to prisons located on higher grounds in preparation for the coming hurricane.

Many were moved to the notorious Angola prison, a former slave plantation, and the largest prison in Louisiana. Family members reported not hearing from loved ones for several days, even weeks, feeling they had been lost in the system.

Sheriff Gusman attempted to dismiss critics and quell public fears by citing new technology used to track individuals. “Our electronic wristband system,” Gusman said, “is in use as an extra level of security to ensure that we know the exact status and location of each inmate at all times.”

The relocation came with the additional need to take precautions to prevent the spread of COVID-19. According to Gusman, 22 individuals in custody had tested positive for COVID. He assured that they were quarantined and under the care of Wellpath, the private medical provider.

A total of some 2,500 people were moved from local jails, including those in Plaquemines, Acadia, St. Mary, Vermillion, Terrebonne, and St. Bernard parishes.

Sandbagging for the Storm

Several parishes did not heed warnings of the coming storm. Instead, they stayed in place and battened down their hatches. They included: the St. Charles Parish jail, located in Killona, that housed about 380 people; the St. John the Baptist Parish jail, located in LaPlace, that had about 60 people; and the Jefferson Parish jail, located in Gretna, on the banks of the Mississippi River, that held some 1,100 people.

In Lafourche Parish, Sheriff Craig Webre refused to move some 600 people at the jail, and instead used them to fill sandbags for flooding. Lafourche Parish President Archie Chaisson spoke to the local media, asking the public to get prepared, and thanking the sheriff for “inmates making some sandbags for us, should we need them.”

Mother Jones reported about Sheriff Webre who boasted on social media of using prisoners for free labor. On the sheriff’s Twitter and Instagram pages, he posted video of prisoners filling piles of sandbags. The posts were later removed from social media, spokesperson Capt. Brennan Matherne explained, “because we were getting so many responses it was hampering our communication efforts in the middle of an impending Major hurricane.” The sheriff was, he said, “just trying to highlight the efforts of our inmate workers.”

Capt. Matherne defended the sheriff’s decision, saying that they did not evacuate the jail “because it was built to withstand the threats this storm presented.” Two days after the storm hit, the jail was running “essentially as normal,” with power generators and access to clean water.

Of course, under the conditions, prisoners didn’t have much of a choice to refuse filling sandbags.

Bad Scenarios Went Through My Head

A woman whose nephew is being held at the Nelson Coleman Correctional Center, in St. Charles, about a half-hour west of New Orleans, spoke to Prison Legal News. She agreed to an interview on the condition that she remained anonymous, for fear of retaliation against her loved one. After the hurricane hit, Ms. Scott, we will call her, went for a month without hearing from her nephew.

Ms. Scott’s last messaged her nephew on August 29, just as the storm was landing down. He did not mention anything about the storm, he acted like everything was fine. She wondered if those at the jail had been told about it. “I didn’t want to agitate him,” she said, “he may not be aware of the seriousness of the hurricane.”

In the first days of the storm, she tried to call the jail, “but there was no phone service. I emailed, but there was no response.” A relative’s house in St. Charles Parish was “devastated.” There was a boil water advisory. She worried for her nephew. Did they have bottled water? Was there fresh air? Were they safe from COVID? “All the bad scenarios went through my head,” she said.

St. Charles Parish Sheriff Greg Champagne wrote on his Facebook page that a generator was powering the jail, and there was air conditioning. He made the snide remark that those in the jail were getting three hot meals a day, “much better conditions than the overwhelming majority of our citizens.”

A month later, Ms. Scott’s nephew finally called the family to say he was okay. In the meantime, she reached out to elected officials at the state and federal level. She got a call back from someone at Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry’s office who made a “distasteful” comment. She also received a call from the office of US Representative Troy Carter, a person took down her information, but she never heard from them again.

This points to a “larger picture,” she said, of people “forgotten” during an emergency. “We can’t just write off people because they’ve been accused of a crime, or found guilty. Society and the media have allowed these people to be treated inhumanely.”

Appalling Conditions

On August 27, 2021, two days before the storm, 36 teenagers from the New Orleans juvenile detention center were evacuated to the Elayn Hunt Correctional Center in St. Gabriel, an adult prison holding almost 2,000 men and women, the second largest prison in the state. A lawsuit was filed by the Loyola Law Clinic on behalf of Families and Friends of Louisiana’s Incarcerated, Jane Doe and her 15-year-old son, claiming the move was illegal.

The juveniles, some as young as 14-years-old, reported of the “appalling conditions.” They were kept under lockdown in solitary cells “without air condition, poor-quality food, lack of programming, extreme heat, lack of sight and sound separation with the adults incarcerated at the prison.”

For days, they could not communicate with their parents and guardians, who were not told where they were sent. They were not returned to the juvenile facility until September 1. The suit asks a judge to block any future evacuations and force the city to develop a new plan.

On September 6, other prisoners started to be returned to local jails in Orleans Parish, and Plaquemines Parish.

Mei Azaad is an organizer with Fight Toxic Prisons, who worked with people incarcerated, their families and loved ones during Hurricane Ida. Azaad told Prison Legal News that it’s not the storm itself that’s the most dangerous, “people die or become ill in the following weeks, for example, being forced to drink toilet water, and their numbers are underreported.” The lack of standardized policy was “the biggest problem,” and procedures are then implemented at the discretion of a local sheriff or warden.

As climate change intensifies, and hurricanes become more severe, prisoners like those in Louisiana will continue to be on the front lines of global warming, held captive by government officials who show little concern for their safety. 

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