Abandoned & Abused: Executive Summary and Recommendations

Document Date: August 9, 2006
Affiliate: ACLU of Louisiana


In the days following Hurricane Katrina, the public was inundated with stories of personal tragedies that were unfolding day by day in the city of New Orleans and throughout the Gulf Coast region. Some reports were of amazing rescues, but much of the coverage focused on the disaster within the disaster—the thousands of men, women, and children left stranded around New Orleans, in their homes, the Louisiana Superdome, and the Convention Center.

But just a few miles away from the Superdome and the Convention Center, another disaster within the disaster was developing at Orleans Parish Prison (“OPP”), the New Orleans jail. During the storm, and for several days thereafter, thousands of men, women, and children were abandoned at OPP. As floodwaters rose in the OPP buildings, power was lost, and entire buildings were plunged into darkness. Deputies left their posts wholesale, leaving behind prisoners in locked cells, some standing in sewage-tainted water up to their chests. Over the next few days, without food, water, or ventilation, prisoners broke windows in order to get air, and carved holes in the jail’s walls in an effort to get to safety. Some prisoners leapt into the water, while others made signs or set fire to bed sheets and pieces of clothing to signal to rescuers. Once freed from the buildings, prisoners were bused to receiving facilities around the state, where, for some, conditions only got worse. At the Elayn Hunt Correctional Center, thousands of OPP evacuees spent several days on a large outdoor field, where prisoner-on-prisoner violence was rampant and went unchecked by correctional officers. From there, prisoners went to other facilities, where some were subjected to systematic abuse and racially motivated assaults by prison guards.

At the time, public officials and traditional news media said little about the OPP prisoners. The first reports from government officials were based on rumors that prisoners had rioted and taken over parts of the jail complex. New Orleans City Council President Oliver Thomas told a local television station that rioting prisoners had taken a deputy, his wife, and their four children hostage.[1] Louisiana’s Department of Public Safety and Corrections received a report that prisoners had taken over an armory on the 10th Floor of an OPP building and that a firefight was in progress.[2] These claims, like so many that were repeated in the days after the storm, were never substantiated.[3]

The first accounts of what really happened at OPP during and after Hurricane Katrina came to light once the prisoners started recounting their experiences to family members, lawyers, and local and national civil rights and human rights organizations. The picture that emerged from all of these accounts was one of widespread chaos, caused in large part by inadequate emergency planning and training by local officials, and of racially motivated hostility on the part of prison officials and blatant disregard for the individuals trapped in the jail.

For many of the prisoners whose stories appear in this report, the nightmare continues to this day. At present, OPP evacuees sit in facilities around the state awaiting long-overdue trials on minor charges. Nearly every day, attorneys discover another prisoner whose case has slipped through the cracks. These are prisoners doing “Katrina time,” as it has come to be known.[4] Some prisoners have even been returned to a reopened OPP, which is now overcrowded and dangerous, full of post-Katrina hazards that Orleans Parish Criminal Sheriff Marlin N. Gusman failed to repair in his haste to repopulate the jail.

This report seeks to provide a comprehensive picture of what the men, women, and children at OPP endured before, during, and after the storm. It is written to capture their experiences, so that their voices can be heard.[5] In the year since the storm, the Sheriff has denied many of the claims made in this report, at times referring to the OPP evacuees simply as liars,[6] and at other times as “crackheads, cowards and criminals.”[7] This report is intended to serve as their unified response.

The report is the result of an eleven-month investigation by local and national activists and attorneys. In the weeks after the storm, criminal defense attorneys around Louisiana traveled to dozens of jails and prisons to generate lists of prisoners who had been dispersed following Katrina. Based upon these lists, in October and November 2005, the National Prison Project of the ACLU mailed approximately 2000 questionnaires to OPP evacuees in over 20 different facilities; these questionnaires asked prisoners to describe their experiences during and after the storm.[8] The ACLU has since received and reviewed written accounts from over 1300 prisoners who were in OPP when Katrina struck.

We, along with each of the co-authors and contributors to this report, have also interviewed hundreds of these and other OPP evacuees, their family members, as well as former OPP deputies and staff. In addition, we have interviewed current and recently released OPP prisoners regarding the living conditions in the reopened OPP buildings, and have reviewed court documents and public records produced as part of federal civil rights lawsuits challenging unconstitutional conditions at the jail.

In general, this report does not cover the experiences of other prisoners in the state of Louisiana who were affected by Hurricanes Katrina or Rita. The one exception is contained in the section of the report discussing the experiences of prisoners from Calcasieu and Jefferson parishes who endured systemic abuse at the Jena Correctional Facility (Jena), where they were evacuated as a result of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Volunteer defense attorneys initially interviewed all of the individuals at Jena. Members of Human Rights Watch (HRW) and the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF) interviewed many of these prisoners a second time.

In order to move forward with a jail that is more cost-effective, humane, and that ensures real public safety, local, state and federal officials should consider implementing the following recommendations:

Recommendations to Local and State Officials
The Orleans Parish Criminal Sheriff’s Office,[9] the City of New Orleans, and the State of Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections
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. An organization such as the National Institute of Corrections is capable of evaluating the emergency preparedness of individual jails and prisons, as well as entire correctional systems. In the months after the storm, the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections (“DOC”) commissioned the National Institute of Corrections to prepare a Technical Assistance Report (“NIC Technical Assistance Report”) to evaluate, among other things, its performance in assisting Orleans and Jefferson parishes in evacuating their jails. Although the state has refused to release the report to the public, it is encouraging that DOC took the time to learn from the Hurricane Katrina experience.[10] To date, it does not appear that the Orleans Parish Sheriff or any other local official in New Orleans has shown a similar interest in evaluating their performance. Only by analyzing—honestly—what happened before, during, and after Hurricane Katrina, will it be possible for New Orleans to respond better when the next hurricane hits.

Downsize the jail by ending the practice of holding state and federal prisoners. On August 29, 2005, the day Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, OPP was holding nearly 2000 DOC prisoners.[11] This number represented close to one-third of the total OPP population, and three times as many DOC prisoners as were held in any other parish.[12] The small amount of money given by the state to OPP to house these people is insufficient to provide them with adequate programming, medical care, or mental health care. Over 200 of the prisoners at OPP during the storm were in federal custody, charged with violations of federal criminal law or federal immigration law.[13] Given the tight fiscal situation of the city and the structural problems that are created by housing thousands of prisoners in what should be a county jail, OPP should not be rebuilt to host state or federal prisoners.

Implement reforms to decrease the number of pre-trial detainees held at OPP. Sixty percent of OPP’s population before Hurricane Katrina was made up of individuals held on attachments, traffic violations, or municipal charges,[14] such as parking violations, public drunkenness, and failure to pay a fine. Pre-trial diversion programs, bail reform, and cite-and-release arrest policies are all examples of possible means by which the city of New Orleans could reduce this population of people at the jail, while both saving money and ensuring public safety.

Convene a Blue Ribbon Commission to develop and implement a full set of recommendations for detention reform. The first step to real reform is to bring together an investigative body comprised of local criminal justice stakeholders and national detention experts to conduct a full assessment of the New Orleans jail system and issue recommendations for reform. These recommendations would include: 1) making population projections at the short-, mid-, and long-term range; 2) identifying the jail capacity needed for the city in light of these projections; 3) assessing how to improve jail conditions and programming; and 4) diagnosing current inefficiencies in the system that inflate both the jail population and the cost of running the facility. Findings from the Blue Ribbon Commission should be reported to the Mayor, City Council, Sheriff’s Department and general public, and act as a blueprint for system reform.

Reduce the use of juvenile detention by exploring viable alternatives to detention. Since the storm, neither of the juvenile detention facilities in Orleans Parish has been reopened to house juveniles. Moreover, since the release of a report detailing the plight of juveniles at OPP during Hurricane Katrina, Sheriff Gusman has pledged to no longer house juveniles at OPP. However, just weeks later, the City of New Orleans instituted a curfew for juveniles, and quickly began detaining juveniles.[15] For most kids, there is little risk that they will commit a new offense before their court date or that they will fail to appear for court.[16] Therefore, there is no public safety need served by locking children up wholesale before their trials. Adopting alternatives could result in youth being held in smaller, more therapeutic facilities. It would benefit both the children and their communities for officials to work with school systems to ensure that schools are not referring youth to the police for incidents that can be handled by the school or community. Children can be treated within their communities through a number of programs. By locking a child in detention, especially an overcrowded detention center, the risks for suicidal behavior and psychiatric illnesses are increased.[17] Furthermore, youth are removed from many of the safety nets that help them cope, such as family, school, and community supports.[18] It has been shown that treating most children in their communities does not compromise public safety and may in fact help improve it by reducing recidivism.[19]

Begin to view detention as a process rather than a place. Detention as a process refers to graduated levels of supervision and considers custody an act, rather than a physical placement. This concept moves detention beyond the notion of a single building, and instead embraces a wide variety of services in the community. Viewing detention as process opens the door to more alternatives and allows officials to be more flexible, assigning levels of supervision to fit the particularized needs and risks of each offender. Many of the problems with the detention system stem from overcrowding. This is a common scenario in detention systems across the country. Overcrowding can affect the quality of basic services, such as medical and mental health care, and is the driving factor that leads to prisoner-on-prisoner violence. While simply addressing the issue of overcrowding will not solve all the problems, it will begin to make solving other problems a bit easier. By embracing the concept of detention as a process and developing effective alternatives to detention, Orleans Parish can begin to address overcrowding and avoid the onerous task of evacuating 6000+ prisoners.

Appoint an Independent Monitor. The Sheriff’s Office should establish an Independent Monitor Office to review OPP policies, procedures, critical incidents, complaints and quality of complaint investigations. The Independent Monitor should make regular reports of its findings and recommendations to the public, elected officials and OPP staff.

State of Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections
Work with local officials to implement a coordinated emergency response plan that works across departmental boundaries. Much of the responsibility for the chaos that ensued at OPP after Katrina can be laid at the feet of local officials, who failed to prepare for the storm and its aftermath. However, it is clear that the problems for OPP evacuees did not end when they left New Orleans. The safe and orderly evacuation of thousands from OPP requires a coordinated effort by officials on all levels of government. The state must ensure that there is a clear line of command and communication among state and local officials, that all necessary equipment, vehicles, and personnel are available in the event of an evacuation, that personnel have been trained through disaster drills, and that the receiving facilities are prepared to accept evacuees.

Conduct regular audits of local jails holding state prisoners. As outlined in this report, the problems at OPP began long before Katrina struck. The state has a responsibility to ensure that its prisoners who are in OPP and other local jails are provided with the minimal necessities required under state and federal law. In particular, the State Fire Marshal must conduct regular inspections to ensure that adequate fire and emergency evacuation procedures are in place, and that staff are trained in these procedures.

Recommendations to Federal Authorities
United States Department of Justice
Commence an investigation into the treatment of prisoners at OPP and at various receiving facilities, to discover whether human and civil rights violations occurred. Following their interviews with prisoners at Jena, HRW and LDF called for the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice to conduct an independent and impartial investigation into the conduct of the state corrections staff at Jena. HRW and LDF sent a letter to the Justice Department on October 7, 2005, asking for an investigation into the abuses that took place at Jena in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.[20] On November 1, 2005, the special litigation section of the Justice Department responded that because the Jena facility had already been vacated, they were not authorized to conduct a civil investigation of the facility. The letter also noted that the Criminal Section requested that the FBI investigate the abuse allegations.[21] To date, no findings from an investigation have been made public. Such an investigation should be undertaken, and it ought to include, but not be limited to, the treatment prisoners received at OPP, Hunt Correctional Center, Bossier Parish Maximum Security Jail, Ouachita Parish Correctional Center, and Jena. Any investigation should include interviews with prisoners who were at the facilities during the reported abuses, and findings from such an investigation should be made public.

See endnotes >>