Nov. 18, 2005 – From a cramped jail cell, to neck-deep waters, to a lockdown on a desolate highway, the prisoners were trapped every step of the way.
"They told us if we didnâ€™t shut up, we were going to stay there another day," one former inmate of the New Orleans prison recalled after guards forcibly moved her, two days after Hurricane Katrina drove a torrent of water into her cell.
Yesterday, legal advocates with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) publicized a collection of more than 70 testimonials gathered from former inmates of Orleans Parish Prison who claim their captors trapped, abandoned and mistreated them after the disaster hit on Aug. 29. The reports counter earlier claims by the police department the facility was evacuated quickly and safely.
The published statements of the female and male detainees, all anonymous to protect the identities of the witnesses, relate a sense of utter helplessness as inmates skirted death in Katrinaâ€™s wake, languishing for days with little or no food or water. The stories detail the terror of being locked in their cells as floodwaters rose and physical assaults by prison staff as they were herded onto the overpass of Interstate 10, where they waited to be picked up and shipped to other facilities.
One inmate said the "floodwater got up to six feet, up to my neck, and Iâ€™m six-one. I really thought I was going to die." He recalled that some inmates flocked to the jail windows calling for help. According to the testimony, though guards initially ignored the pleas, he was eventually moved onto the Iâ€“10. Throughout the evacuation process, he said, guards subjected him to brutal treatment as he was surrounded by floodwaters rife with waste and corpses. The inmate reported witnessing more abuse by prison guards after being transferred to facilities in other parishes.
Another witness stated that after "the deputies left us for dead," some inmates attempted escape and were shot at. Others recounted that while waiting on the overpass to be taken to safety, guards deprived them of food and water and brutalized them indiscriminately.
According to the testimonies, guards used attack dogs, electroshock weapons and pepper spray to subdue prisoners; inmates were sprayed when they tried to stretch their legs or asked for food, or sometimes for no apparent reason. One former detainee recalled that keepers denied him his blood-pressure medication and threatened to shoot him if he asked for it again.
In one of the prison buildings, female prisoners were crowded on the second floor to escape the floodwaters that had overtaken the first floor. "People crammed like sardines â€“ it was horrible," stated one inmate, who had been housed for a few weeks at the facility while awaiting trial. Some female inmates reported being forced to drink water from a garbage can as filth and feces piled up around them.
In response to charges that authorities mistreated prisoners after the hurricane, Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman told CNN in an interview in October, "I make no apologies. It was tough. But we did it safely." Denying claims that some prisoners were trapped for days after the storm, he stated, "We evacuated everyone out of this jail before the city was evacuated. Thatâ€™s a fact."
This is not the first time prisonersâ€™ rights issues have surfaced in investigations of failures in the governmental response to Katrina.
In September, the international advocacy organization Human Rights Watch urged the Justice Department to conduct an investigation of the treatment of inmates during the catastrophe. The group alleged that Gusman had not initiated an evacuation of the prison until midnight on Monday, August 29, while other parishes had begun their evacuations on Saturday or Sunday. By that date, according to Human Rights Watchâ€™s investigation, prison staff had completely abandoned one building on the compound, Templeman III, with more than 600 prisoners still inside.
The evacuation of the prisoners was not complete until Fri., Sept. 2, the group reported, and over three weeks after the storm, more than 500 inmates remained unaccounted for.
The ACLU is currently litigating a federal class-action lawsuit on behalf of an estimated 6,500 New Orleans prisoners who were left behind in the hurricane, claiming that the lack of an adequate evacuation plan violated prisonersâ€™ civil rights.
As of last week, Orleans Parish Prison officials had not responded to the organizationâ€™s requests for information regarding the evacuation plans and any deaths that occurred at the facility after the hurricane. In a statement criticizing the non-response, Joe Cook, executive director of the ACLU of Louisiana said, "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."