Orleans Parish Prison (OPP) has never been your typical county jail. On an average day before Hurricane Katrina destroyed many of OPP’s building, the prison held nearly 6500 inmates. Although New Orleans was only the 35th most populated city in the United States, OPP was the 9th largest local jail in terms of the total number of prisoners per day and the average daily population of prisoners (1). OPP even housed more people than the notorious Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola (a.k.a. “the Farm”). On any given day, 60% of OPP’s population are individuals held on attachments, traffic, or municipal charges (2), while the remainder are housed for the Louisiana Department of Corrections and the federal government. It was these inmates, many of whom had not yet been formally charged with a crime, or were serving time for minor municipal infractions, who were abandoned in their cells for days following Hurricane Katrina.
Unfortunately, the problems at Orleans Parish Prison did not begin with Hurricane Katrina. OPP has a long history of cruelty and neglect when it comes to the health and safety of its inmates, which explains why the prison has for years been subject to numerous federal court-ordered consent decrees. For example, just three months before Katrina hit the prison, two OPP deputies were indicted for beating an inmate to death after he was picked up for public drunkenness (3). Another inmate died in August 2001 of dehydration, after he was held in restraints for 42 hours; the inmate–Shawn Duncan–entered OPP one week earlier as a healthy 24-year-old who was being held on traffic charges (4).
One major concern that has driven ongoing monitoring by the court is OPP’s provision of horribly inadequate health care. In 1999, pregnant prisoners complained that they were kept shackled while in labor. Also, an inmate claimed that she was denied a gynecological examination despite the fact that she bled for 30 days after giving birth (5). In October, 2004, an OPP inmate died of a ruptured peptic ulcer. According to the Orleans Parish coroner, the inmate probably writhed in agony for 12 hours before collapsing to his death (6). After an inmate died in March 2005 of tuberculosis, members of the public organized a rally to highlight the problems at OPP (7). On the same day as the rally, another inmate at OPP died of bacterial pneumonia (8).
Since the hurricane, many people have spoken of Katrina exposing existing problems of race and class in American society. The hurricane also exposed the callous disregard for the welfare of inmates that has long been endemic to OPP. When asked about the evacuation of OPP inmates, the head of Louisiana’s Department of Corrections reportedly quipped: “Some have assured me they will never be late on child support payments again.” (9). Orleans Parish Criminal Sheriff Gusman denied reports by thousands of OPP inmates that they spent days in buildings that were flooded, without food, water, or access to sanitary facilities, stating: “They’re in jail, man. They lie” (10).
4. Susan Finch, “Jail’s Handling of Restraint Case Blasted Inmate Lacked Care, Doctor Says,” New Orleans Times-Picayune, Mar. 5, 2002; Michael Perlstein, “Report Faults Care of Prison Inmates ACLU Commissions Study After Man Dies,” New Orleans Times-Picayune, Jan. 28, 2002.
7. Bob Ussery, “Prison Inmates Dies in Hospital Another Fell Fatally Ill in Late February,” New Orleans Times-Picayune, Mar. 31, 2005; see also Bob Ussery, “Jail Inmate Died of TB, Tests Show Officials Screen Those in Contact with Him,” Mar. 10, 2005.
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