September 26, 2005
Common Dreams, Questionable Sources
Human Rights Watch claims:
New Orleans: Prisoners Abandoned to Floodwaters
Officers Deserted a Jail Building, Leaving Inmates Locked in Cells
NEW YORK - September 23 - 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 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.
Human Rights Watch claims that guards recklessly abandoned inmates and implied that as many as 517 prisoners are unaccounted for and possibly dead, including 130 thought to have been in Templeman 3, one of the cell blocks where flooding was worst.
While deaths may indeed have occurred in the Orleans Parish Prison, they are nowhere near what Human Rights Watch hints at, nor does there seem to be as many prisoners missing as they allege. This level of exaggeration would be on par with other Human Rights Watch reports of the recent past, and indicative of a sensationalist organizational culture.
Here is what we do know about the situation in the Orleans Parish Prison immediately before and after Hurricane Katrina.
There were indeed breakdowns in disaster planning at the Orleans Parish Prison, apparent even before Hurricane Katrina made landfall. We heard rumors of a riot in the prison on 8/30, but at the time, the riot could not be confirmed. By the next day, the prisoners had been readied for evacuation, and by September 1, all inmates and corrections officers had been evacuated with no known fatalities.
A week later, stories began leaking out about the Orleans Parish Prison riot from both inmates and guards. These were the first and only early accounts from somewhat credible named witnesses. Even then, few accounts, if any, were corroborated, while some facts were flatly preposterous, like claims by one of the guards that flooding reached the fifth floor. Only one named source in the various articles I've seen claimed to have seen bodies, and they numbered exactly two in that account.
More recent accounts, including one published 9/25, claim that while some corrections officers did fail in their duties, some performed heroically, including newly promoted Chief Deputy Bill Short, whose eyewitness testimony seem to directly contradict key points of the report from Human Rights Watch:
Chief Deputy Bill Short said Thursday that he could confirm only four escapes, but a full head count by the state Department of Corrections is still under way.
Short was promoted to his new position a week ago in acknowledgment of his steely command of the 800-inmate House of Detention during the storm and its aftermath.
Other deputies said they knew of more than a dozen escape attempts.
One thing Short said he knows for certain is that there were no deaths - not among the inmates, not among the 900 or so employees who reported to work, not among the scores of residents who floated or waded in from the surrounding neighborhood to the relative safety of the veranda of the high-rise Community Correctional Center.
"Did we know exactly what to do?" Short asked. "Nobody did. It was a wild ride, but we must have done some good things because nobody died."
According to the top on-scene official contacted so far, no inmates died as Human Rights Watch has implied, and only four escapes have been confirmed.
In addition, in their attempt to paint prison officials in the worse possible light, Human Rights Watch does not mention the fact that the prisoners were evacuated well ahead of the sick, the very young, and the elderly at the Superdome and the Convention Center. Prisoners, perhaps because of their status as wards of the State of Louisiana, actually received preferential evacuation treatment over the other citizens of New Orleans.
Corinne Carey of Human Rights Watch says of the prison, "Of all the nightmares during Hurricane Katrina, this must be one of the worst."