ACLU Urges New Orleans City Council to Review Conditions at Prison

Affiliate: ACLU of Louisiana
December 8, 2005 12:00 am

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Prisoners Returned to Orleans Parish Prison Despite Lack of Adequate Evacuation Plans and Medical Services, ACLU Says

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
CONTACT: media@aclu.org

NEW ORLEANS — In response to reports that hundreds of prisoners have returned to Orleans Parish Prison, the American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana today 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.

“It is deeply disturbing that Sheriff Gusman has re-opened Orleans Parish Prison without first putting in safeguards that would prevent the horrors of Katrina from happening all over again,” said ACLU of Louisiana Executive Director Joe Cook, who signed the letters. “The City Council has an obligation to do what it can to protect the lives and safety of these prisoners and jail personnel, and to prevent certain institutional failures from being repeated.”

The ACLU’s National Prison Project has filed a contempt motion against Sheriff Gusman for disobeying a federal court’s order to disclose copies of the current evacuation plan. According to the ACLU, the Sheriff’s office admitted last week that the fire evacuation plan is in the possession of the Fire Safety Officer, who has not been heard from since the hurricane. Nonetheless, the Sheriff now houses approximately 600 prisoners in OPP without a Fire Safety Officer or a readily available evacuation plan.

The ACLU said a City Council public hearing is especially important in light of the scores of testimonials it has obtained from prisoners that contradict public statements made by Sheriff Gusman that the evacuation went as planned. According to the testimonials, OPP fell into chaos in the five days after Hurricane Katrina struck. As the water rose in the prison buildings, deputies deserted en masse, leaving behind prisoners in locked cells. Prisoners broke windows and either leapt out or set fire to pieces of clothing and held them outside the windows to signal to rescuers. The prisoners spent days without power, food or water, some standing in sewage-tainted water up to their chests or necks.

“We are asking council members to fulfill their obligations by holding a public hearing on the re-opening of the Orleans Parish Prison, and to do so before any more prisoners are returned there,” added Cook. “One of the first issues to address at the hearing should be whether an adequate evacuation plan exists for OPP.”

The one document that the Sheriff’s office has provided the ACLU is a flood contingency plan, which the ACLU called “grossly inadequate.” The ACLU said the two-page plan does not meet the standards outlined in the U.S. Department of Justice’s “Guide to Preparing for and Responding to Prison Emergencies.” For instance, the contingency plan contains no description of how OPP buildings will be evacuated in the event of an emergency; what responsibilities state and local agencies have to coordinate a response to an emergency; how food and potable water will be distributed to staff and prisoners during an emergency; or what training staff members and prisoners are to receive on proper evacuation procedures.

“The chaos that ensued after Katrina shows that we need clear and effective plans in place to deal with emergency situations,” Cook said. “The Sheriff’s flood plan looks more like an afterthought to avoid a lawsuit than a well-thought-out strategy to save lives.”

The ACLU also expressed concern over a November 10 letter from Sheriff Gusman to City Council members indicating that officials re-opened OPP despite serious flaws with the facilities. In the letter, Sheriff Gusman noted that in light of the “severe damage” suffered by the buildings, additional repairs and improvements are needed in order to bring the two facilities that are currently operational back to pre-Katrina levels [emphasis added]. Furthermore, Sheriff Gusman acknowledged that the “limited medical staff and equipment can’t provide all of the services that are needed for dialysis, surgery, and the treatment of AIDS” for prisoners at OPP.

A copy of one of the ACLU’s letters to council members is available at: /prison/conditions/22369lgl20051208.html

For prisoner testimonials, go to: /prison/conditions/21620prs20051117.html

For a copy of the Orleans Parish Prison’s flood contingency plan, go to: www.aclu.org/prison/conditions/22359lgl20050921.html

For a copy of Sheriff Gusman’s Nov. 10 letter to City Council members, go to: www.aclu.org/prison/conditions/22357lgl20051110.html

For a copy of a Nov. 30 OPP letter acknowledging the lack of a Fire Safety Officer or fire evacuation plan, go to: www.aclu.org/prison/conditions/22358lgl20051130.html

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