ACLU Seeks Information on the Fate of 6,500 New Orleans Prisoners

Affiliate: ACLU of Louisiana
September 28, 2005 12:00 am

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NEW ORLEANS – Citing eyewitness reports of locked prisoners being abandoned to drown in their cells in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the American Civil Liberties Union today demanded access to the relocated prisoners it represents under a longstanding class-action lawsuit over prison conditions.

“It is critically important to discover the truth about whether New Orleans officials left these prisoners to die a nightmare death. If true, they not only abandoned their duty, they abandoned basic human decency,” said Eric Balaban of the ACLU’s National Prison Project. “While surrounding parishes managed to get guards and prisoners to safety, Orleans Prison Parish was plunged into chaos. We are asking the court to grant us access to our clients so that we can get to the bottom of this horror.”

Earlier this month, the ACLU filed state and federal Freedom of Information Act requests seeking information about what happened to the prisoners, if dead bodies were disposed of, and what evacuation plans were in place at the time Katrina struck.

In a motion filed today before the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana, the ACLU cites both eyewitness accounts and news reports saying that no evacuation plans were in place and that the sheriff of the prison, Marlin N. Gusman, did not seek state assistance until midnight on August 29, days after other parish prisons had already called for help. The prison is located within miles of the 17th Street Canal Levee, which was breached on August 29, the day the hurricane struck.

The ACLU also cited reports by the New Orleans Times-Picayune that after generators failed and the jail ran out of food, deputies walked off their posts, “tossing their badges down and turning their shirts inside out.”

Further, according to a report by Human Rights Watch, also cited in the ACLU’s legal papers, prisoners housed in one building known as Templeman III reported that as of August 29, there were no correctional officers in the building, which held more than 600 inmates. As the water inside the locked building began to rise, the prisoners frantically signaled people outside the building by setting fire to blankets and shirts and hanging them out of broken windows. The prisoners in this unit were not evacuated until September 1, four days after flood waters in the jail had reached chest-level, the report said.

In addition to today’s motion seeking access to its clients, on September 19 the ACLU filed Freedom of Information Act requests with the U.S. Marshals, the U.S. Coast Guard, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Department of Justice, seeking records regarding:

  • Deaths that occurred in the prison since August 26, 2005
  • The collection and disposition of dead bodies from the prison since August 26, 2005
  • Any evacuation plans in effect as of August 26, 2005
  • Any documents pertaining to evacuation plans in effect as of August 26, 2005

Further, on September 22, the ACLU also filed a state public records request seeking information about the collection and disposition of dead bodies and any evacuation plans in effect at the time of the hurricane. That request was sent to Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco, Mayor Ray Nagin, Dr. Frederick P. Cerise of the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals, Richard Stalder, Secretary of the Department of Public Safety and Corrections, and Dr. Frank Minyard, Coroner of the Orleans Parish.

Orleans Parish Prison is the ninth largest in the country, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics. Under the terms of a longstanding class action lawsuit over prison conditions, the ACLU has acted as counsel for the more than 6,500 OPP prisoners since 1989. In that capacity, the ACLU has sought to enforce court orders regarding the medical and mental health and environmental conditions of the prisoners.

The motion filed today, Hamilton v. Morial, Civ. Action No. 69-2443, is online at: /node/35482

The Sept. 19, 2005 federal FOIA requests are online at: /node/

The Sept. 22, 2005 state FOIA requests are online at: /node/35496

The Human Rights Watch report is online at

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