By Carolina Reyes/ Fairhaven graduate
Standing in chest-deep floodwater, Robert Brown, 60, was helpless against the feces and toxins floating around him. Bars kept him locked down— bars designed to open in a power outage, but now padlocked shut. Finally able to maneuver his frail body to the top bunk in the cell, he sat there for two and a half more days after the almost full day he had already spent in the water. With no food and no water, Mr. Brown was at the brink of death in the humid and 90-plus degree weather in the days following Hurricane Katrina. He, like hundreds of men and women, was an inmate in the Orleans Parish Prison Templeman III jailhouse. They survived the hurricane by being sheltered in the building, only to be trapped inside of their cells when the floodwaters rose to four feet within the prison on Monday, August 29. From September 19 to November 4, I worked at an evacuee shelter in Baton Rouge, LA. I helped people find transportation to their families and to what would be their new homes. In that time, I met and assisted over a dozen released prisoners who recounted the same story of abuse, abandonment, and torture in the Orleans Parish Prisons. The story first came to me by way of Angelina, a woman recently released from Angola Prison, when I was driving her to the bus station. She had found me and asked me to help her get to San Antonio, TX to reunite with her partner and 2-month-old son whom she had only found a few days earlier.
Angelina had been imprisoned on Friday— one week before the hurricane— for a parole violation. Because she could not afford child-care for her one-month old son, she could not keep regular working hours forcing her from her job, putting her in violation of her parole. On her scheduled release, 2 days before the storm, the Louisiana Prisons Department stopped releasing prisoners due to the evacuation orders set upon New Orleans. She was trapped in a prison about to become a living hell.
Most of the people I spoke with, including Angelina, were inmates in Templeman III, one of several buildings in the Orleans Parish Prison compound. Many of them had been arrested for offenses like criminal trespass, public drunkenness or disorderly conduct. Many had not even been brought before a judge and charged, much less been convicted. They all 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 1st— four days after floodwaters in the jail had reached chest-level. Angelina said she knows of at least five deaths in the four terrible days; two women killed by other inmates, one who had a heart-attack (she thinks) and two others who probably succumbed to the heat, humidity, dehydration, and shock.
Human Rights Watch, a global non-profit organization, has conducted the only investigation of the N.O. prisons as of the writing of this article. They conducted interviews with over 1,000 inmates and asked the U.S. Justice Department to investigate the treatment of prisoners in the city’s jails. When Doug Simpson, a reporter for The Advocate in Baton Rouge questioned the Justice Department, he was told they were unaware of any allegations involving the N.O. jail. A spokeswoman for the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Department told Human Rights Watch she did not know whether the officers at Templeman III had left the building before the evacuation and that there were no deaths in the prison. Angelina tells me the officers left under orders from Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman. Records obtained by HRW show that Gusman also failed in calling for assistance from the State Department of Corrections until midnight on Monday; after the eye of the storm had hit and the prison had already begun to flood. Other area parish prisons had called for assistance on Saturday and Sunday to start evacuating their inmates, which in turn, had been evacuated safely at that point. When questioned, Sheriff Gusman stated publicly that no one died in the jail after the storm and that inmates had plenty of food and drinking water throughout the three days of evacuations. When asked about inmate testimonies he responded, “They’re in jail, man. They lie. They went and made a bunch of stories. It’s crazy.”
But tears don’t lie. Heartbreak this deep cannot be fabricated. Samantha, a mother of two whom I accompanied to see her home for the first time since she was arrested on August 22, went into post-traumatic shock as I unknowingly drove us past the T3 building. “Look,” she said to me, crying softly and trying to catch her breath, “all the men was putting those sheets out the window to let them know we were in there.” I saw one white sheet coming out a 3rd floor window and a tattered cloth from another one on the second floor. Broken glass littered the alley below. I was later told that inmates set fire to blankets and shirts and hung them out of the windows to let people know they were still in the building. Apparently at least a dozen inmates jumped out of the windows. “We started to see people in T3 hangin’ shirts on fire out the windows,” Brooke Moss, an Orleans Parish Prison officer told Human Rights Watch. “They were wavin’ em. Then we saw them jumping out of the windows ... Later on, we saw a sign, I think somebody wrote `help’ on it. ”
On the way to the shelter, Samantha told us that not only had the inmates, men and women, had no food or water in the four days trapped in the flooded building, but that once rescued they stayed stranded and under gunpoint for a day and a half on a bridge awaiting busses to Angola State Prison. Officers held bottles of water in front of the handcuffed and starving prisoners in high heat and humidity drinking and taunting them. She recounts black men beaten and called “nigger” by white officers and women also verbally and physically abused, an account verified by Chris, another shelter resident and evacuee, who told me he was beaten on the bridge for lifting his head off the concrete. I could still see the marks left on his face from the beating.
“Of all the nightmares during Hurricane Katrina, this must be one of the worst,” said Corinne Carey, researcher from HRW. The worst of the storm is over, but in the wake of Katrina many are victims of more than a hurricane and floods. They suffered at the hands of a deceitful man and a corrupt justice system that locked innocent people and petty criminals in and left them to die. The women and men whose tears I witnessed will live with their nightmares, but we all live with the consequences of such tremendous injustice. This country rallied for the relief efforts with money and supplies; it’s time now to continue to care. By letting the stories out, Angelina Kelly, Constance Nelson, Philip Beal, Robert Brown and many more will soon be vindicated— their suffering will not be for nothing.