Imprisoned in New Orleans

The people wanted to rebuild. What they got instead were private security forces.

By Jordan Flaherty Mar 21, 2006

When Hurricane Katrina hit, there was no evacuation plan for the 7,000 prisoners in Orleans Parish Prison, the New Orleans city jail, generally known as OPP, or the approximate 1,500 prisoners in nearby jails. According to first-hand accounts gathered by advocates, prisoners were abandoned in their cells while the water was rising around them. They were subjected to a heavily armed “rescue” by state prison guards that involved beatings, mace and being left in the sun with no water or food for several days, followed by a transfer to state maximum security prisons. Although their treatment brought national attention to the condition of prisoners in Louisiana, and comparison to prison abuse scandals from Attica to Abu Ghraib, local government officials have attempted to dodge accountability and continue with business as usual.

A New Culture of Security

Raphael Schwartz, a 26-year-old Missouri man arrested and imprisoned for public intoxication in New Orleans on August 27, was sprayed with mace and abandoned by officers in a locked cell with seven other prisoners. According to papers filed by the ACLU of Louisiana as part of an emergency motion to inspect the prison, the man had no ventilation and nothing to eat or drink for four days.

Quintano Williams, a 31-year-old office manager picked up on marijuana charges just before the storm hit, declared as part of the ACLU’s lawsuit to being abandoned for days and then relocated to Hunts Correction Facility, a rural Louisiana maximum security prison, where he was left with thousands of detainees on a football field. There, he witnessed stabbings, but, he said, prison staff “did not interfere with anything that was going on as long as people did not try to get out of the area.”

Rachel Francois was arrested in mid-August, and as far as her family was able to discover never had charges filed against her. “We tried to bail her out,” her mother, Althea Francois, said. “It was the day before Katrina, and the bail bonds places were all closed. If they had been open, she would have been released that day. Instead, we could not get her released until two months later.” Francois, a prisoner-rights advocate, searched for two weeks before she found out where her daughter was being held.

Rachel and other women were taken to Hunts and then Angola, an all-male prison. “When I found out she was at Angola prison, just the idea really broke my heart,” her mother said.  “She didn’t have a bed until the last few days she was there. She had no food for four days. She saw them throw food at the men like they were animals, but even then they didn’t give the women anything. The women were having panic attacks and were in fear for their lives.  ”

Most of the people trapped in this brutal web of governmental abuse and neglect would have been released within a few weeks even if convicted. However, as of this writing several months later, many remain locked in maximum security prisons such as Angola, Louisiana’s notorious former slave plantation.

The flooding of New Orleans showed vividly the results of local, state and federal governments’ misplaced priorities, as well as the privatizing and militarizing of relief. In the weeks after the disaster, while the people of New Orleans wanted to rebuild their city, what they got instead was “security.” Hundreds of National Guard troops, as well as police forces from across the U.S. and private security forces including Blackwater, Wackenhut and an Israeli company called Instinctive Shooting International began patrolling the nearly empty city. New Orleans police were captured on video, shown around the world, beating an elderly Black resident in early October.

Before the Storm

Long before Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans was hit by hurricanes of disinvestment, deindustrialization, corruption and neglect.  Louisiana has the highest rate of incarceration in the country—816 sentenced prisoners per 100,000 state residents. By comparison, Texas comes in a distant second place with 694 per 100,000.  Although Blacks make up 32 percent of Louisiana’s population, they constitute 72 percent of the state’s prison population. New Orleans has a 40 percent illiteracy rate, and over 50 percent of Black ninth graders will not graduate in four years. Far too many Black men from New Orleans end up in Angola prison, a former slave plantation where inmates still do manual farm labor, and over 90 percent of inmates eventually die in the prison. Pre-Katrina, New Orleans industry had already left, and most remaining work involved low-paying, transient, insecure jobs in the service economy.

Orleans Parish Prison was the eighth largest jail in the country, made up of several buildings located near downtown New Orleans. The population of the jail was predominantly people from the city’s many low-income communities and communities of color. The jail also rented out cells to the federal government to house immigration detainees and other federal prisoners. However, most of the prisoners left behind as the jail flooded had not been convicted of any crime, but were being held pre-sentencing. Lawyers and researchers working on behalf of the prisoners say that most were accused of misdemeanors, such as minor drug possession, parking violations and public drunkenness. 

Mary Howell is a civil rights lawyer who has been active in defense of prisoners from OPP for years. “Last year, 80,000 people came into OPP as arrestees,” she said. “Very few were eligible for rehabilitation programs. This prison has mostly been warehousing people. We’ve suffered under a policy where the city builds a huge jail that is then required to be filled with human beings, or else it’s a waste of money.”

Ursula Price is a staff investigator for A Fighting Chance, a nonprofit organization that works for indigent defense in Louisiana. She has been working around the clock since the hurricane hit, despite losing everything she owned in the flooding of New Orleans. “Investigating what happened to these prisoners and where they are is not supposed to be our job. This should be the city’s concern,” she said.

Initial reports gathered from testimony of both inmates and guards put the number of inmates unaccounted for anywhere between a dozen and several hundred. Sheriff Marlin Gusman has been sticking with an official statement that, “all inmates housed in Orleans Parish were safely evacuated from our 10 facilities by boat and transported to state and parish facilities by bus.”  He also suggested to media that reports of abuse come from “disgruntled” inmates who “lie.” Human Rights Watch and ACLU responded that these reports are consistent from many different prisoners and also match with reports from interviews with guards at OPP. In late November, Gusman’s office put out arrest warrants for 14 inmates, while still denying that any were missing, other than two who had been recaptured. 

Defending the Prisoners

The defense of these prisoners has been managed by just a few organizations and individuals. Phyllis Mann, a lawyer from rural Alexandria, Louisiana, found that many of the OPP prisoners had been moved to a prison near her, and she started visiting them. Now, according to Price, Mann has dropped everything in her private practice to dedicate herself to their legal defense—and has 12 former prisoners living in her house.

Official negligence is just the beginning of the obstacles advocates have faced.  “Immediately after the flooding, the governor issued an order suspending the clock on court proceedings,” Price said. The state no longer had a time limit—formerly 60 days—under which to present charges or release prisoners. “It’s stopped due process,” Price continued. “Almost all of the public defenders have been laid off. There are only seven left in Orleans Parish. Meanwhile, in trying to defend these folks, we have massive travel costs and almost no funding.”

For the prisoners, there are other hardships. “These are Katrina survivors, but they’re not getting their FEMA money or Red Cross aid or food stamps,” said Price. “They’ve lost contact with their families; many have children and they don’t know where they are.”

Human Rights Watch has been instrumental in collecting the stories of prisoners who were evacuated from OPP. Ross Angle, who has since been released, told Human Rights Watch, “Picture waking up everyday in a prison somewhere—you don’t even know where you are—knowing you were supposed to be free, not knowing how long they were going to keep you there. Not knowing if it would ever end. After they moved me, I kept asking for someone to look at my case, and they just kept telling me, ‘We’re waiting on the DOC guys, we don’t know anything.’ If my lady wasn’t seven months pregnant, calling them everyday and yelling, then I would probably still be there…It made me feel worthless.”

After the hurricane, the incarceration of suspected “looters” was the first city function to restart. Due process and civil liberties were almost nonexistent for new arrestees, who were put in cages in a makeshift prison at a Greyhound bus station, with no access to phones or lawyers. When ACLU attorney Katie Schwartzmann went to observe proceedings, a sheriff’s deputy at first refused her access, as well as taking and reading her notepad.

According to advocates and recently released prisoners, new arrestees are offered a choice—either plead guilty and be put to work on city cleanup crews, or plead not guilty and face months in Angola prison with no access to a lawyer.

“Despite all of the horror we are seeing daily, my hope is this is an opportunity for change,” Price said.  “OPP corruption is being laid bare—people being held past their time is nothing new in this system, it’s just more extreme now. This is something to organize around and fight against.”