After Katrina, Where Have All the Prisoners Gone?

StorySeptember 13, 2005
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A makeshift prison has been set up in the Greyhound bus and train station in downtown New Orleans. The nearby prison, was flooded after hurricane Katrina. What happened to the prisoners there and in other parish prisons in New Orleans? A writ of habeas corpus was recently filed for an accounting of the prisoners. We speak Louisiana defense attorney Phyllis Mann. [includes rush transcript]

A makeshift prison has been set up in the Greyhound bus and train station in downtown New Orleans. It’s being run by the Burl Cain–the warden of Angola prison as well as prison guards from New York.

The nearby prison, the Orleans jail was flooded after the hurricane. What happened to the prisoners there and in other parish prisons in New Orleans? Yesterday, a writ of habeas corpus was filed in Louisiana for an accounting of the prisoners.

  • Phyllis Mann, defense attorney in Alexandria, LA.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: One woman who has been working tirelessly since the hurricane and flood is Phyllis Mann. She is a defense attorney in Alexandria, Louisiana. She yesterday went to the Angola prison, where it’s estimated something like 500 women were brought to this men’s prison after the hurricane. We welcome you to Democracy Now!, Phyllis Mann. Can you talk about what happened in Angola?

PHYLLIS MANN: I and two other female attorneys went to interview — we interviewed 199 of the 499 women who are currently being housed at a male maximum security prison at Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, everyone calls it Angola. And we spent the entire day in the dormitory where these women are being housed. There have never been women housed at Angola before.

These women were moved to Angola from women’s facilities in Orleans Parish due to the flooding there. And among the women being held there I met with a 49-year-old woman who was a citizen of Jamaica, who had been arrested on August 16 because she overstayed her visa, but before her deportation could occur, the hurricane came, and so now it has been almost a month, and she would happily return to Jamaica. In fact, what she expressed to me today was not only would she happily return, but she just doesn’t have any future plans to ever come back to America again in light of her experiences, that she was housed in a building that they called Concetta, which houses women in Orleans Parish and is part of the Orleans Parish system and was there when the waters began to rise.

And she, along with all of these other women, initially were moved from the first floor up to higher floors, and then as those flooded, they had to be evacuated out, and they were taken by boat from the Orleans Parish prisons. But many of them walked for hours through chest-high water, and some were able to be boated out, and then they got to the Causeway Bridge where they were left waiting for buses. And then from there, they were brought to Angola. And these women are being housed in dormitories that hold 100 women.

They — when they were in Orleans, they were several days without any food or water. Ultimately, they had to — they put water in trashcans when the water stopped operating at the prison, and then they were subsequently told don’t drink the water from the trashcans now; we’re afraid it’s contaminated. And these are women, by and large just like the woman from Jamaica, who have — it could be you or I.

I met with another woman who had failed to pay a fine. She was also arrested on August 16, and because she failed to pay a fine, is sitting in a maximum security prison. We don’t know when we’re going to be able to get these women out of jail. There was another woman who was arrested for sleeping by the ferry. She has a $600 bond, and she’s been in jail since August 3. But because the records for people who are arrested in Orleans Parish are maintained by the Orleans Parish Sheriff, until those records can be reconstructed, we can’t get these women out of jail.

AMY GOODMAN: Phyllis Mann, can you talk about the men and what happened in the Orleans jail?

PHYLLIS MANN: Sure. Last week, I interviewed 200 men who had been moved to Rapides Parish to the Sheriff’s jail here from Orleans Parish. And two of the men, in particular, told me a story that just was almost unbelievable to me. These men were federal detainees, meaning that they had been arrested on federal charges and were being held in the local jail. They had originally been housed in O.P.P., which actually stands for Old Parish Prison there in Orleans on the federal tier.

And as the water began rising, they were moved from that floor up to a higher floor, and ultimately they were placed by the guards in the gymnasium area in the facility, where they were locked in. Once the guards placed them there, they did not see any guards again. Some of the men that were on the same floor where they were, were not in this open gymnasium area, they were in holding cells. And as the water began rising, it got higher and higher. They had been there about a day-and-a-half with no food or water, and they had not seen any guards.

And the water rose until it reached chest level. The men in the gymnasium were able to break the windows out of the gymnasium, and they literally swam out of that room to escape from the prison, but the men that were in the holding cells could not get out. And the men that I spoke to that were able to free themselves were very, very certain that the other men in those holding cells have drowned.

These men that were able to free themselves literally swam out of the building and then found a guard to turn themselves in to. And they were then placed on buses and brought from Orleans to Hunt Correctional Center where they were given blankets, and they basically slept on the hillside for another day or into the following day, when they were placed on buses and brought here to Rapides Parish.

And again, one of the many problems that we’re facing and I don’t know we have a solution to is until we can reconstruct the records of the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Department, we will not even know who was housed in the various Orleans Parish facilities. We’re not going to know how many inmates did not make it out of those facilities.

AMY GOODMAN: Phyllis Mann, what were these men charged with that you interviewed?

PHYLLIS MANN: The two men — these men that told me the story were both charged with federal offenses. They were federal drug offenses. But as they were being relocated to higher floors in Orleans Parish Prison, not everyone who was relocated there was charged with a serious crime. Many of these men, just like the women that I talked to today, were arrested on very minor charges. They may have been arrested for public drunk or possession of drug paraphernalia, which could be something as minor as a roach clip. Some of them were charged with trespass. Some of them were on probation and had missed a court date or had missed a drug court hearing and were in jail for seven days to sort of get their attention. Well, my lord, we have gotten their attention now.

AMY GOODMAN: So, what’s going to happen to them?

PHYLLIS MANN: Ultimately, we’ll get this all sorted out. There are lawyers all over the state, criminal defense lawyers, who are going to all of these facilities. There are 35 facilities that we are aware of all over the State of Louisiana, where over 8,500 people from Orleans jails were evacuated. And we’re literally having to go in and meet with these people one by one to figure out when they got arrested, why they were in jail, whether they have been convicted or whether they were waiting for trial, whether it was a misdemeanor or a felony.

I understand that the computers from the Orleans Parish Criminal Sheriff’s Office were retrieved from Orleans on Friday, and their information technology people have been working to try to get as much information off of those computers as possible. And eventually what will happen is they’re going to start matching the information they can recover from those computers to the information that we have been getting by going in and interviewing these people one by one, so that we can figure out where they’re supposed to be. I would say a good half of them are not supposed to be in jail at all. They have served whatever sentence they had received and should be released. But until we can figure that out, they’re sitting there.

AMY GOODMAN: Some haven’t even been sentenced at all?

PHYLLIS MANN: Many of them not sentenced at all. Many of them not even convicted. They are people who, like all American citizens, when they’re arrested are presumed innocent until proven guilty, and they have not even had an opportunity to go to court.

AMY GOODMAN: Phyllis Mann, how do the prisoners reach their families?

PHYLLIS MANN: We have a hotline number that has been established through Hunt Correctional Center. Families can call in to these numbers. It’s area code 225 and the two numbers are 342-5935 or 342-3998. If they had a loved one who was in jail in any of the affected parishes, St. Bernard, Orleans, Jefferson or Plackman, they can call into those numbers and leave a message about where they currently are, where their loved one can call to reach them, and they can also find out from Hunt Correctional Center where their loved one is now being housed. We do finally have a complete list of where everyone was evacuated to, so families can call in for that information.

AMY GOODMAN: Phyllis Mann, thank you very much for being with us. Phyllis Mann, a defense attorney in Alexandria, Louisiana. A writ of habeas corpus has been filed to get accounting of the prisoners, it is believed something like 8,000 of them. Where are they? Have they been moved? Did they survive? What has happened?

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