"Therefore will we not fear, though the earth do change,And though the mountains be shaken into the heart of the seas;-Psalm 46:2-3, 6, 8
Though the waters thereof roar and be troubled,
Though the mountains tremble with the swelling thereof. Selah
The nations raged, the kingdoms were moved:
He uttered his voice, the earth melted.
Come, behold the works of Jehovah,
What desolations he hath made in the earth."
The biblical proportion of the images is undeniable. Thousands crammed into the Superdome, masses escaping a flooded city down abandoned superhighways, human corpses floating down dark watery streets. These are some of the lasting images that, for many, epitomize the human dimension of the Katrina disaster.
When the levees broke on August 29, 2005, still darker events were unfolding one mile northwest of the infamous Superdome at the Orleans Parish Prison, where prison guards left nearly 8,000 men, women and children locked behind bars to drown in the rising floodwaters mixed with sewage and filth. This is the first of a 4 part series about these "Prisoners of Katrina."
The ACLU relased a 142 page report on the OPP in 2006, titled "Abandoned & Abused" that contains most of the facts presented in this post unless otherwise noted.
The Orleans Parish Prison (Pictured Above) is not one building, but a prison complex of twelve buildings located in downtown New Orleans. The Parish Prison is not technically a prison; it functioned as a local jail. On an average day before Katrina, the Parish Prison's population housed 6,500 individuals, 60% of whom were "pre-trial detainees," meaning they had not been convicted of any crime, and had been arrested on municipal charges such as traffic violations, public drunkenness and failure to pay a fine. Though primarily a local prison serving the population of New Orleans, the OPP received money from other state and federal agencies for renting beds out to them. At the time of the storm, the OPP was housing 2,000 state prisoners, many of whom were completing drug and alcohol rehab as a condition of probabtion. Once they completed their programs, these "prisoners" were eligible for release. When Katrina made landfall, OPP rented out beds to 200 federal prisoners, including immigration detainees, who had not been charged with any crime, and federal prisoners charged with violations of federal criminal law. (ACLU, 13-16)
Pre-Katrina, New Orleans had the highest incarceration rate in America with nearly 1,480 prisoners per 100,000 residents, which is double the national average. Katrina exposed the deep racial divide that exists across the country, and the story of the Orleans Parish Prison serves as a focus into the over-incarceration of African-Americans.
From the ACLU Report:
"For example, while only 12.3% of American citizens are black, they make up 43.7% of the incarcerated population across the country. In 2005, the incarceration rates for black males of all ages were 5 to 7 times greater than for white males in the same age groups. Prior to Katrina, an astonishing 12% of all black males in their late twenties were in prison or jail in the United States. In Louisiana...the black incarceration rate at state prisons and local jails was 4.7 times higher than the white rate in 2005. Orleans Parish was no exception: although the parish itself was only 66.6% black prior to Hurricane Katrina, almost 90% of the OPP population was black."On August 28, 2005, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin surmised the awesome power of the storm and declared a mandatory evacuation, "with only the following exceptions. Essential personnel of the United States of America, state of Louisiana and city of New Orleans. Essential personnel of regulated utilities and mass transportation services. Essential personnel of hospitals and their patients. Essential person of the media. Essential personnel of the Orleans Parish criminal sheriff's office and its inmates. And the essential personnel of operating hotels and their patrons."
After Mayor Nagin and Gov. Kathleen Blanco described the disastrous potential of the storm to the media, a reporter asked, "What about the prisoners in the jail right now? Will they just simply stay in the jail?"
Nagin deferred the question to Sheriff Marlon Gusman (Pictured Above). "We're going to keep our prisoners where they belong," he responded. Gusman runs the Orleans Parish Prison to this day.
So what happened to the prisoners?
Before Katrina made landfall, the prisoners were placed on lockdown; they were unable to use the phone, riot squads entered the jail; prisoners were maced, beaten, and packed into cells meant for 2 people. After the storm while George W. Bush announced the state of emergency on the Gulf Coast, 200 or more new arrests were being packed into the already crowded prison.
One prisoner describes the situation in his cell:
"Before I knew it my bottom bunk was underneath water. At this point I knew for sure the deputies was nowhere in the building. Still time continue to pass by, water still rising. No food for us to eat. Finally a female deputy came by we shouted to her about our conditions. She then replied there's nothing we can do because there's water everywhere and she left. At this point water had risen to at least 4 ft deep. I thought for sure I would never see freedom again."As flood waters rose, the electricity generators in the basement blew out, leaving many sections of the OPP in total darkness. Prisoners complained about flood water rising in their cells, kicked down doors, and tried desperately to escape, as some prison deputies walked off their posts.
In the hopes that they would be rescued, some prisoners burned their bedsheets in their windows to attract the attention of the patrolling military helicopters outside (See Burnscars in Picture Above)
Several female prisoners were pregnant and reported miscarriages resulting from their days spent at OPP. Many of the prisoners had medical conditions that made them particularly vulnerable to the conditions, like Keanna Herbert, who was HIV-positive and a diabetic housed in the Medical Observation Unit (MOU), "In the days of Katrina, my choice [to take care of myself and treat myself] was taken from me and put in the hands of the M.O.U. We were left abandoned there for 3 days in stagnant water without any care for any of my problems. Due to neglect my T-cells went down to 11 making me extremely ill. In those 3 days I received a [stomache] infection that affected me so bad that I looked as though I was 9 months pregnant...I will not just accept that this happened to me." (ACLU, 41)
The ACLU Report details thousands of stories that emerged from the flooded bowels of the Orleans Parish Prison. Under normal circumstances, prisons place lives in the hands of a state apparatus. Being locked in a cage, we are told, is a form of punishment meant to straightforwardly deprive humans of their autonomy and freedom. Mayor Nagin declared prisoners to be "exceptions" to his mandatory evacuation order, and this naked human life was exposed to disaster, neglect and the caprice of circumstance.
We must take Keanna Herbert's words at face value. Calamity doesn't "just happen" to the governed. To borrow a phrase from Michel Foucault, sovereign decisions were made to "disallow life."
A parking ticket in New Orleans on August 26, 2005, resulted in beatings, mace, and death on August 29, at the hands of the State.
This is the first in a 4 part series about the "Prisoners of Katrina."