ACLU Decries Conditions in La. Prison During Katrina

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A report released Thursday describes Orleans Parish prisoners trapped in flooded cells, deprived of food and water for days, and calls the scene at the jail "some of the worst horrors of Hurricane Katrina."

The American Civil Liberties Union compiled the report through interviews with prisoners, Orleans Parish Prison deputies and staff, and through legal and public documents.

"Prisoners went days without food, water and ventilation, and deputies admit that they received no emergency training and were entirely unaware of any evacuation plan," the ACLU report said. "Even some prison guards were left locked in at their posts to fend for themselves, unable to provide assistance to prisoners in need."

Other deputies abandoned prisoners in locked cells, where some were standing in sewage-tainted water up to their chests, according to the report.

Tom Jawetz, litigation fellow for the ACLU's National Prison Project, said the sheriff's office was "completely unprepared for the storm."

"The Louisiana Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals did more for its 263 stray pets than the sheriff did for the more than 6,500 men, women and children left in his care," Jawetz said.

Sheriff Marlin Gusman said more than 6,000 inmates were evacuated without any deaths or serious injuries.

"The lies of inmates and disgruntled former employees have already been addressed and discredited many times over," he said in an e-mailed statement Thursday. "Compiling them one more time does not lend any more credibility to these untruths."

He continued: "It is time to focus on the recovery and rebuilding of our criminal justice system and stop paying attention to organizations and individuals dedicated to untruths designed to perpetuate their own selfish self-interests."

Gusman has acknowledged that a loss of electricity and no working toilets created a foul atmosphere. He has denied that prisoners were not fed. He said prisoners, his staff and their families had food from the prison, plus Meals, Ready to Eat, supplied by the military.

There were no confirmed deaths at the jail, the report said, though it detailed stories of two inmates with health problems who died after being transferred out.

It took three days to evacuate inmates after the storm hit on Aug. 29, jail authorities have said. The jail has reopened but now holds only about 1,800 inmates. Others are incarcerated at 38 state and local lockups around Louisiana.

The report said the crowded conditions had contributed to the chaos. New Orleans had the highest incarceration rate before Katrina of any large U.S. city.

The National Prison Project urged President Bush to direct the Department of Justice to evaluate the jail's current evacuation plans to determine whether any meaningful improvements have been made over the past year.

The ACLU asked Congress to audit the jail's emergency preparedness plans. The civil rights group also is calling for a federal investigation into possible abuses at Louisiana correctional facilities during and after the storm.