Oct. 4, 2005 – Thousands of prisoners in Louisiana are saying the state failed them when Hurricane Katrina bore down on the Gulf Coast, including some jailed for minor crimes but still held five weeks after the storm passed. Recent reports of guards beating and otherwise abusing inmates and news that Orleans Parish sheriffs left a number of prisoners in flooding jail cells have prompted a deluge of legal filings and requests for intervention and investigations.
Last week, Human Rights Watch (HRW) researcher Corinne Carey reported that a number of prisoners from one Orleans Parish Prison building claimed that jailers left them locked up with no food or drinkable water for at least three days. It is believed that the building housed over 600 prisoners.
During their ordeal, water rushed into the building and a generator failed, leaving the inmates no choice but to try and break free of their cells, HRW said. Some prisoners reported seeing bodies float down the hall and said they were unable to get all the cells open.
According to HRW, prison officials would not talk to the organization about the matter, but did allow researchers to compare a list of known evacuated prisoners and the full list of inmates at the parish prison prior to the hurricane. The group could not find 517 of the prisoners, including 130 believed to be from the building Careyâ€™s interview subjects say was abandoned.
Friday, defense lawyers added to the allegations of a system out of control, filing sworn affidavits from inmates claiming that as many as 8,000 were beaten, threatened and subjected to abuse and mistreatment by guards throughout the state, the New York Times reported on Sunday. The lawyers are asking the Department of Justice to wrest control of the facilities and end the abusive behavior.
Yesterday, HRW called on state corrections officials to investigate specific abuse claims from several of the 450 inmates transferred to Jena Correctional Facility, a former juvenile detention center, from Jefferson Parish Prison.
"It appears that men who have been through the horrors of Katrina were then subjected to new horrors at the hands of prison officers," Carey said in a statement yesterday. "The number and consistency of the reports inmates have made about their abuse makes their claims extremely credible."
In a letter to Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections Secretary Richard L. Stalder yesterday, HRW demanded that immediate action be taken to end the prisoner abuse and urged Stalder to invite several agencies to investigate the allegations.
According to the Times, defense lawyers estimate that around 2,000 people currently held by the state justice system have been imprisoned for minor crimes for over five weeks without any legal redress, including many that would normally have been released after hours or days.