Revolution #64, October 8, 2006


Doing “Katrina Time”—Torture in New Orleans Prisons

Part 1: Locked Cells in Rising Water

by Li Onesto

1157 Miles. That’s how far New Orleans, Louisiana is from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba – in physical distance. But in terms of being a place of horrific torture of prisoners, the two places are very close.

Meteorologists had predicted that Hurricane Katrina would be devastating. But government officials failed to evacuate the city, leaving tens of thousands to suffer—especially the poor without cars or money and the elderly too weak to leave.

A decision was also made to NOT evacuate the Orleans Parish Prison (OPP). As satellite pictures showed a Category 5 hurricane heading toward New Orleans, the Sheriff of Orleans Parish, Marlin Gusman told the press, “We’re going to keep our prisoners where they belong.”

Across town from OPP, the Louisiana Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals packed up their 263 stray pets and got them safely out of the city.

August 29, 2005. The day Katrina hit, there were 6,375 prisoners in New Orleans. This included 670 women; 354 juveniles, as young as 10 years old; and immigrants being detained. A full 60% of OPP’s population, about 3,800, were people in jail for things like traffic violations, parking violations, public drunkenness, begging, blocking the sidewalk (i.e., being homeless), and failure to pay a fine. Many were awaiting trial and had not been convicted of any crime.

New Orleans had an incarceration rate of 1,480 prisoners per 100,000 residents—the highest incarceration rate of any large city in the U.S. The United States has the highest national incarceration rate in the world, and it was double this in New Orleans. Of OPP’s population, 90% was Black.

Water quickly flooded into the prison complexes. Power was lost, plunging people into total darkness and shutting down the electrical system used to open cell doors. Cardell Williams, interviewed in the BBC TV special, Prisoners of Katrina, said, “After the water came to our waist level, the deputies told us to get into our cells, they had mace and shotguns.”

Hidden Story.How many people know that when Katrina hit, thousands of prisoners were locked up and left to suffer, perhaps drown? This has largely remained a hidden, untold story—denied and covered up by prison administrations, government officials and politicians.

On August 10, 2006, the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Prison Project released a report, “Abandoned & Abused: Orleans Parish Prisoners in the Wake of Hurricane Katrina,” that documents the experiences of thousands of men, women and children who were abandoned at Orleans Parish Prison in the days after Katrina. Based on questionnaires received from 1,300 prisoners, as well as interviews with current and recently released OPP prisoners, the report contains extensive and damning testimony, and evidence of the inhuman and racist torture-like treatment of OPP prisoners—how they were abandoned, then beaten, shot at, and abused by prison guards, and then evacuated under further inhuman and brutal conditions.

Jim Crow, Chain Gang South. New Orleans is in the Deep South. During slavery, it had two dozen slave auction houses and several times a year the ballrooms of its two grand hotels were used as showrooms for human merchandise. Today, Congo Square, where slaves were auctioned off, has been renamed Louis Armstrong Park and the city is world famous for its Mardi Gras celebrations. But the legacy of Jim Crow, chain gangs, and KKK justice is a living legacy in New Orleans. And the present-day effects of this whole oppressive history are especially and brutally alive in the whole system of unjust courts, brutal cops and inhumane jails.

"Abandoned & Abused" recounts, “In 1980 a mob of white cops rampaged through a black section of the city in retaliation for the murder of a police officer, killing four people and injuring as many as 50. According to reports, people were tortured and dragged into the swamps to face mock executions. In 1990 a black man accused of killing a white officer was beaten to death by officers who had gathered to wait for him at the hospital to which he was transported; no officers were criminally prosecuted or administratively sanctioned. These incidents which would be terms a race riot and a lynching if performed by private citizens are merely the most sensational examples of the department’s racially discriminatory practices.”

Locked Cells, Rising Water. Close your eyes for a minute and think about being in total darkness. You’re locked in a cell. Flood waters are rushing in at an incredible rate and within minutes it is chest high. The guards who have the keys to open the cells and the doors to the outside have left. The phones aren’t working and there is no way to communicate with anyone on the outside. No way to know if anyone is going to rescue you…or if you have just been left to die.

Prisoners told of how people were scared and screaming that they could not swim, that they didn’t want to die. They put up desperate signs on the outside of the buildings that said: “We Need Help” and “Help No Food Dying.”

Some who were not locked in their cells managed to free others. “If it wasn’t for inmates somehow getting my cell open,” one prisoner wrote, “I probably would have died.” But others could not get out of their cells.

For days thousands of prisoners were trapped with no food or water and had to resort to drinking contaminated floodwater containing raw sewage. More than half of the over 6,000 OPP prisoners had been on some kind of medication. But this had obviously been of no concern to the prison officials. Some people started having epileptic attacks, others suffered from not having their medicine for asthma or diabetes.

One prisoner reported: “All through the time of this you heard screams of terror, cries for help and no one was answered… Most of us was on meds and didn’t receive them. I myself went without my asthma pump and struggling with my breathing severely, being not able to talk and feeling weak. There was smoke everywhere and all you heard all night and early the next day was gunshots. I really felt inside like I was about to die and was left there to die!!”

One prisoner, Joyce Gilson, wrote: “You wouldn’t imagine that one person would let another human being go through that when there was time to let us out. It never would occur to me that a person could let that happen, even though we’re in jail we’re human beings.”

Mace, Batons, Shotguns, Tasers. When deputies came back into the prison building, they didn’t come with food, water, or any other kind of help. Instead they came with riot gear, shotguns, mace, batons, tasers, and brutality. One prisoner wrote: “Deputies came up firing rounds down the hallways to keep us in the cells… They even handcuffed inmates to bars of the cells.”

Some prisoners started knocking holes in the walls, trying to get out. Some of them jumped from the third floor into the water. Prisoners told of how deputy snipers shot at anyone who tried to get out of the flooded, suffocating buildings. Some prisoners ended up hanging from the rolls of razor wire lining the fences that surround the prison. Ace Martin, a prisoner in the Templeman III complex, said, “One guy jumped out of the hold and they shot him… He fell on a barbed wire fence. They picked him up in a boat and told us to stay in the hole or we’d be shot.”

Lies and Cover-Up. Public officials and the mainstream media had little if anything to say about what was happening in OPP. When a report finally came from officials, it was full of rumors and lies—claiming that the prisoners had rioted and taken over parts of the complex. The City Council President told a TV station that rioting prisoners had taken a deputy, his wife, and their four children hostage—which was completely fabricated. This was in line with and added to the way the media portrayed the masses of Black people in New Orleans as looters and criminals—while not reporting about the many and creative ways that people came together, cooperated and helped each other out under such dire circumstances and in the face of such blatant government neglect.

Sheriff Marlin Gusman says there were no deaths at OPP during the storm and the evacuation, even though several of his own deputies and many prisoners report deaths at the jail. To this day, Gusman claims prisoners weren’t mistreated and that they were given food and water. So how does he respond to the fact that hundreds of prisoners and even many prison guards questioned by the ACLU completely contradict this? Gusman says: “I have 75 accounts from inmates given by lawyers with misleading questions. It’s kind of hilarious to read them… None of it was true. But when you put it in the paper it becomes more credible and it frustrates the hell out of me. Don’t rely on crackheads, cowards and criminals to say what the story is.”

But who were the real cowards and criminals in OPP when Katrina hit? The thousands of prisoners, along with all the other thousands of people in the city, who did everything they could to try and survive—in the face of murderous neglect and racist brutality? Or those who left human beings in locked cells as floodwaters rose, who shot at people trying to escape to safety, who brutalized people with mace, batons, tasers and dogs, and then covered up and lied about all their crimes?

Next—Part 2: Evacuation Nightmare

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