Men Tell Court They Were Left to Drown in New Orleans Prison

Affiliate: ACLU of Louisiana
October 6, 2005 12:00 am

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ACLU Files Emergency Motion for Access to Orleans
Parish Prison

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NEW ORLEANS — In legal papers filed today by the American Civil Liberties Union, two men detained on minor charges recount disturbing details of being abandoned without food or water in over-crowded, flooded cells for days at the Orleans Parish Prison during Hurricane Katrina. The ACLU submitted declarations from the men, who have since been released from prison, along with an emergency request to allow attorneys to inspect the prison before officials remove evidence.

“First-hand accounts of the horrors within Orleans Parish Prison raise serious concerns about the treatment of people held in custody,” said Eric Balaban of the ACLU’s National Prison Project, which filed the emergency motion. “There was a complete breakdown in the system during Hurricane Katrina and we need to engage in a thorough investigation to ensure that something like this never happens again.”

According to the ACLU, 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. 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.

In one declaration submitted today, Raphael Schwarz, a 23-year-old Missouri man who had been picked up for public intoxication at mid-summer Mardi Gras on August 27, said he was sprayed with mace and abandoned by officers in a locked cell with seven other prisoners. Schwarz and the other men were left with no ventilation and nothing to eat or drink for a total of four days.

“The window in our cell was broken out, and we began waving our orange prison uniform tops every time we heard a helicopter pass overhead, in order to signal that we were still in jail,” Schwarz said in his declaration.

Schwarz and nearly 30 other men were eventually rescued by a deputy who said she had been told by officers that there was no one left in the building, and came in to investigate only after she saw a prisoner who had scrambled to the roof. According to Schwarz, the deputy said she had found three dead bodies during her search of the building.

In a second declaration, Quantonio Williams, a 31-year-old assistant office manager who was picked up on marijuana charges just before the storm hit, said he was abandoned by officers for days in two separate facilities. When his unit began to fill with water, he was moved with other prisoners to a basketball court in another building, where he remained for several days. Without food, water, light or ventilation, the prisoners used a basketball rim to chisel out a small hole. Some prisoners were able to squeeze through the hole to escape, while others tied bed sheets together to climb out of broken windows. According to witnesses, prisoners who tried to escape were shot at by officers.

Both Williams and Schwarz were among the prisoners eventually relocated to the Hunts Correctional Facility. The men say they were left with thousands of displaced detainees on a football field, without any security. Williams said he witnessed stabbings, but prison staff “did not interfere with anything that was going on as long as people did not try to get out of the area.”

The ACLU is seeking a temporary restraining order to preserve evidence at the Orleans Parish Prison until attorneys are allowed to inspect the areas where prisoners say they were abandoned during the flooding. The ACLU said that some evidence has already been removed by the Sheriff’s Department.

“We believe that the physical evidence inside the prison complex will confirm that a complete security and operation breakdown at Orleans Parish Prison endangered the lives of prisoners and staff during and after the hurricane,” said Joe Cook, Executive Director of the ACLU of Louisiana. “We call on the court to intervene and help make sure this never happens again.”

The ACLU of Louisiana joined the ACLU National Prison Project in filing official requests last month to determine if prisoners were abandoned to die in the Orleans Parish Prison during and after Hurricane Katrina, and for further details on the prisoner evacuation plan.

For a copy of today’s emergency motion, and the declarations signed by Williams and Schwarz, go to: /node/35500.

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