Prison Conditions and Prisoner Abuse After Katrina

Document Date: December 14, 2005

Hurricane Aftermath and Civil Liberties >>

An inmate is searched before being transported from New Orleans. (Photo by Shannon Stapleton / Reuters)

Orleans Parish Prison: A Big Jail with Big Problems >>
Testimonials from Inmates of Orleans Parish Prison During Hurricane Katrina >>
Speech: Anthony D. Romero on civil liberties and New Orleans >>
ACLU reaction to government’s proposed relief policies and legislation >>
ACLU of Louisiana and Mississippi – First-Hand Accounts of the Storm >>

The Orleans Parish Prison fell into chaos in the five days after Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans on August 29. As the water rose in the prison buildings, deputies deserted en masse, leaving behind prisoners in locked cells. The prisoners spent days without power, food or water, some standing in sewage-tainted water up to their chests or necks.

On September 28, 2005, the American Civil Liberties Union demanded access to the relocated prisoners it represents under a longstanding class-action lawsuit over prison conditions. In legal papers filed by the ACLU, men and women formerly detained at Orleans Parish Prison recount disturbing details of being abandoned without food or water and abused by guards after Hurricane Katrina struck.

The ACLU said that the more than 1,000 testimonials it has obtained from prisoners contradict public statements made by Sheriff Marlin N. Gusman that the prisoners had food and water and that the evacuation went as planned. Some prisoners claim that deputies forced them into their cells by shooting bean bags, macing and tasering them; once they were returned to their cells, some deputies handcuffed the cell doors to prevent them from escaping. As the locked cells began to flood, prisoners hung signs out of the broken windows for help, and others jumped into the water below. According to the testimonials, deputies and members of the Special Investigation Division shot at some of the prisoners who were attempting to escape the rising water inside the jail, and several prisoners report that they witnessed fellow prisoners getting shot in the back.

When the prisoners were finally evacuated from the jail, many were forced to wade through toxic, waste-filled water to the Broad Street overpass on Interstate 10. Prisoners reported that the armed guards at the overpass had K-9 dogs, which were used to threaten them and that they were maced and beaten. Female prisoners also report that deputies directed degrading and sexually offensive comments at them.

In August 2006, the ACLU’s National Prison Project released Abandoned & Abused: Orleans Parish Prisoners in the Wake of Hurricane Katrina. The report documents the experiences of thousands of men, women and children in Orleans Parish Prison in the days after the storm. Read more >>

In response to reports that hundreds of prisoners have returned to Orleans Parish Prison, the American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana urged the City Council to conduct a full and thorough review of the conditions within the facility. In letters to each council member, the ACLU expressed concern that Sheriff Marlin N. Gusman re-opened the prison despite the lack of adequate evacuation plans or medical staff and equipment.

Links to summaries and unedited first-hand accounts.

“The water was nasty all black an dirty all types of debris even human waste” — Inmate #9

“…the deputy we thought would help burst in spraying mace” — Inmate #12

“…people … dead from starving from not eating [or] drinking” — Inmate #44

“The water was so deep I had small prisoners holding on to me” — Inmate #52

“…We were called bitches, whores…” — Inmate #54

“…we weren’t moved until Monday night after the storm passed” — Inmate #55

“…saw an old man being attacked by police K-9s simply because … he needed to stretch.” — Inmate #56

“I waded through … sewage water up to my neck” — Inmate #63

“I even saw one man who was hog-tied, maced, bitten by a K-9” — Inmate #67

“[They said] be glad you not dead and lucky we came got ya’ll…” — Inmate #75