If, as Dostoyevsky claimed, the degree of civilization of a society can be measured by the treatment of its prisoners, we are in even deeper trouble in New Orleans than many realize. In this city, under the radar of most media, the biggest prison crisis since Attica is unfolding. And no one seems to care, because despite Hurricane Katrina’s having “exposed” American poverty and racism, mass incarceration of poor black Americans remains an accepted, if overlooked, fact of modern life. After all, the thinking goes, they did the crime, now they have to do the time. However, like everything else in New Orleans, it’s not so simple.
The New Orleans jail complex sits behind the old gothic Orleans Parish Criminal Court and backs up to Interstate 10 in a run-down area of the city. On the days following Katrina, the entire complex sat beneath feet of water. At that time the jails housed more than 8,000 prisoners, the majority of whom were pretrial detainees, people with the fundamental presumption of innocence but without the funds for bail or a lawyer to get them out before trial. There was a larger than usual population of pretrial inmates when the storm came because before it arrived the police had conducted sweeps to clear the streets, picking up people for petty crimes like loitering or trespassing, and because other parish jails had evacuated their prisoners to New Orleans.
Despite the universal awareness of the risk of flooding in the city, the low-lying jail failed to execute any real evacuation plan. Instead, even faster than New Orleans police abandoned the citizens of New Orleans, many of the sheriff’s deputies who guard the city’s prisoners abandoned their charges and left men and women wondering whether they were going to die as water rose in their locked cells. As prisoner Dan Bright told Human Rights Watch, “They left us to die there.”
Prisoners helped one another escape the flood by prying open cell doors, breaking through windows and finding higher ground in the jail. While officials deny that any bodies were found, many prisoners who were there insist that they saw floating bodies. Those who made it out were rounded up by the few remaining guards and gathered on a nearby Interstate overpass. People remained there for almost two days–without water, under the sun–appearing as a blur of orange jumpsuits from the CNN cameras in helicopters flying above. They were left to urinate and defecate on themselves, hampered by restraints so tight that a month later attorneys who visited them could still see dark purple bands around their wrists. Eventually buses arrived and the detainees were transferred randomly to prisons around the state, but without the papers that might easily distinguish a person who had been arrested for illegally reading tarot cards or “angling without a license” from someone charged with a serious, violent crime.
As bad as this was, it was only the beginning of the indignities the evacuated prisoners were to face. They found themselves in an impromptu patchwork of overcrowded state prisons, parish jails and facilities opened just to accommodate evacuated prisoners. The unluckiest among them, mostly from Jefferson Parish, found themselves at Jena Correctional, a former juvenile prison owned by the Wackenhut Corrections Corporation that was closed after the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana, Human Rights Watch and the Justice Department exposed widespread beatings of incarcerated children there in the late 1990s. That spirit was kept alive in the new incarnation of the prison: Evacuated prisoners were routinely and viciously beaten by their jailers, guards from other facilities who were without a chain of command and for whom there was zero possibility of accountability. Rachel Jones of the Louisiana Capital Assistance Center, a pro bono attorney who was working there at the time, told me that after being a public defender in Brooklyn and a capital trial attorney in Louisiana, “I have never seen anything like it.”