(New York, September 22, 2005)—As Hurricane Katrina began pounding New Orleans, the sheriff's department abandoned hundreds of inmates imprisoned in the city’s jail, Human Rights Watch said today.
Inmates in Templeman III, one of several buildings in the Orleans Parish Prison compound, reported that as of Monday, August 29, there were no correctional officers in the building, which held more than 600 inmates. These inmates, including some who were locked in ground-floor cells, were not evacuated until Thursday, September 1, four days after flood waters in the jail had reached chest-level.
“Of all the nightmares during Hurricane Katrina, this must be one of the worst,” said Corinne Carey, researcher from Human Rights Watch. “Prisoners were abandoned in their cells without food or water for days as floodwaters rose toward the ceiling.”
Human Rights Watch called on the U.S. Department of Justice to conduct an investigation into the conduct of the Orleans Sheriff's Department, which runs the jail, and to establish the fate of the prisoners who had been locked in the jail. The Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections, which oversaw the evacuation, and the Orleans Sheriff’s Department should account for the 517 inmates who are missing from the list of people evacuated from the jail.
Carey spent five days in Louisiana, conducting dozens of interviews with inmates evacuated from Orleans Parish Prison, correctional officers, state officials, lawyers and their investigators who had interviewed more than 1,000 inmates evacuated from the prison.
The sheriff of Orleans Parish, Marlin N. Gusman, did not call for help in evacuating the prison until midnight on Monday, August 29, a state Department of Corrections and Public Safety spokeswoman told Human Rights Watch. Other parish prisons, she said, had called for help on the previous Saturday and Sunday. The evacuation of Orleans Parish Prison was not completed until Friday, September 2.
According to inmates interviewed by Human Rights Watch, they had no food or water from the inmates' last meal over the weekend of August 27-28 until they were evacuated on Thursday, September 1. By Monday, August 29, the generators had died, leaving them without lights and sealed in without air circulation. The toilets backed up, creating an unbearable stench.
“They left us to die there,” Dan Bright, an Orleans Parish Prison inmate told Human Rights Watch at Rapides Parish Prison, where he was sent after the evacuation.
As the water began rising on the first floor, prisoners became anxious and then desperate. Some of the inmates were able to force open their cell doors, helped by inmates held in the common area. All of them, however, remained trapped in the locked facility.
“The water started rising, it was getting to here,” said Earrand Kelly, an inmate from Templeman III, as he pointed at his neck. “We was calling down to the guys in the cells under us, talking to them every couple of minutes. They were crying, they were scared. The one that I was cool with, he was saying ‘I'm scared. I feel like I'm about to drown.' He was crying.”
Some inmates from Templeman III have said they saw bodies floating in the floodwaters as they were evacuated from the prison. A number of inmates told Human Rights Watch that they were not able to get everyone out from their cells.
So far, to the best of my knowledge, the so-called mainstream media has not covered this story. But go here for a transcript of a Democracy Now report.