Sheriff Illegally Withholding Records on Orleans Parish Prison, ACLU Lawsuit Charges

Affiliate: ACLU of Louisiana
November 10, 2005 12:00 am

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ACLU of Louisiana to Testify Before New Orleans City Council on Wednesday

BATON ROUGE, LA–The American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana today filed a lawsuit charging that Orleans Parish Prison officials are violating state law by refusing to turn over public records that would shine light on why prisoners were abandoned when Hurricane Katrina struck.

“”The public deserves to know the truth about what really happened inside Orleans Parish Prison,”” said Joe Cook, Executive Director of the ACLU of Louisiana. “”We need to know why Orleans Parish Prison fell into complete chaos while surrounding parishes managed to evacuate guards and prisoners to safety. Only then can we prevent this from happening again.””

The ACLU of Louisiana filed public records requests with Orleans Parish Criminal Sheriff Marlin N. Gusman and other prison officials on September 21. After two weeks without a response, the ACLU sent a follow-up letter to Sheriff Gusman on October 5. To this day, the Sheriff and other named parties have not provided a single document pursuant to the requests.

Specifically, the ACLU asked for:

  • All documents pertaining to any deaths that have occurred on the premises of the prison since August 26, 2005;
  • All documents pertaining to the collection of dead bodies from the premises of the prison, and the disposition of those bodies; and
  • All documents pertaining to any evacuation plans that were in effect at the prison as of August 26.

The national ACLU, which represents the prisoners under a longstanding class-action lawsuit over prison conditions, filed similar requests under the federal Freedom of Information Act with the U.S. Marshals, the U.S. Coast Guard, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Department of Justice.

According to eyewitness accounts, the Orleans Parish Prison fell into chaos in the five days after Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans. 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.

ACLU of Louisiana Staff Attorney Katie Schwartzmann will appear before the New Orleans City Council on November 16 to present statements from prisoners who were abandoned at Orleans Parish Prison. The statements were obtained through questionnaires distributed to the prisoners.

The national ACLU filed a separate motion on behalf of the prisoners in September in U.S. District Court, charging that no evacuation plans were in place at the time Katrina struck. The motion cites reports that Sheriff Gusman did not seek state assistance until midnight on August 29, days after other parish prisons had already called for help. On October 19, the judge in that case ordered Sheriff Gusman to provide a copy of the current evacuation plan.

For a copy of the complaint, go to:

For more information on the federal lawsuit, and copies of the original state and federal public records requests, go to:

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