Abandoned Behind Bars -- Hurricane Katrina's Prisoners

Amber Mcllwain
Date Published: 
October 17, 2006
Abandoned behind bars — Hurricane Katrina's prisoners
Some good is emerging from a dysfunctional criminal justice system
By Amber McIlwain
WHEN Hurricane Katrina rampaged through New Orleans on August 29 last year, the floodwaters that came with it drowned residential neighbourhoods and swamped the criminal justice system.

Housed at Orleans Parish Prison were 6,500 prisoners left to ride out the storm while the rest of the city fled under the mandatory evacuation order. The prisoners — 60 per cent of whom were held on municipal charges such as unpaid parking fines and public drunkenness, and a third remanded as pre-trial detainees — were abandoned without electricity, food, water and sanitation as contaminated floodwaters rose above 8ft. Twenty-four hours passed before the sheriff gave the go-ahead to evacuate the prison. This took three days. Initially, prisoners were shipped to the interstate overpass where they waited for days in the scorching heat to be transported to other jails around Louisiana. It was then that their fate to took a turn for the worse.

More than a year on, what has happened to the displaced prisoners? The Orleans Indigent Defender Board (now known as Orleans Public Defender (OPD) under new leadership) is responsible for representing all indigent defendants in Orleans Parish. It was already close to breakdown before Katrina struck. Strapped for cash and understaffed, OPD lost 85 per cent of its attorneys, reducing it to a skeleton staff of four attorneys and one investigator because the programme’s primary source of income — traffic fines — ceased to exist in the deserted city. This method of funding is unique to Louisiana and has recently been ruled unconstitutional by two judges in New Orleans who called for emergency funds from the US Justice Department.

The lack of resources meant that a few public defenders and a consortium of volunteer attorneys had the task of trying to locate thousands of displaced prisoners. Twelve months on and hundreds of prisoners still remain incarcerated, having already greatly exceeded what they would have served had they pleaded or been found guilty, but more disturbing is that most have not even been charged yet. This brand of justice has been described by Neal Walker, director of the Louisiana Capital Assistance Centre in New Orleans, as “Bayou Guantanamo”. The reason for such extreme delay is because there were no consistent prisoner records or case management systems to track their cases. Part of the problem is the large gap in the representation of indigent defendants in New Orleans. Poor defendants will have a public defender at their first appearance, but it is simply pro-forma and done en masse. A bond will be set, which most defendants cannot afford, so they will be sent back to jail until the district attorney decides whether to charge within 45 days for a misdemeanour, or up to 60 days for a felony. Until formal charges are brought, defendants are no longer represented unless they have the money to hire a private attorney. As a result, most prisoners in OPP were unrepresented when Katrina hit and were left to languish in jail while attorneys sought to identify and locate their clients to seek their release.

Even now, attorneys are discovering prisoners who have slipped through the cracks. One criminal district judge, Arthur L. Hunter Jr, recently threatened to begin releasing prisoners who had not had access to an attorney since Katrina hit.

Criminal trials did not resume in New Orleans until June, ten months after Katrina, which inevitably lead to backlog of cases. The US Justice Department has recommended that OPD needs 70 full-time attorneys and $8 million annually to function properly, with an initial $10 million to rebuild. With 35 staff attorneys employed at OPD, the programme is close to pre-Katrina strength but still has a lot to achieve. Jelpi Picou, director of the Capital Appeals Project in New Orleans, says: “

OPD: what was a chaotic, flawed, dysfunctional system before the storm is still chaotic, flawed and dysfunctional; but several differences can be pointed out. First, we now know just how terrible the system was and, secondly, we are unified in our understanding that changes must be made.”

The revamped management board of OPD is reforming the indigent defender system. But despite the efforts of many diligent criminal defence professionals, the criminal justice system cannot reconstruct and recover unless all components of the system are functioning.

Many other areas of the system are also struggling to recuperate as Picou explains: “The Orleans criminal district court clerk-of-court’s office is improving but has far to go; the district attorney’s office, while staffed with dedicated, hard-working reasonable assistance, appears to be suffering from lack of leadership and vision; the criminal court judges are working under triage conditions and, for the most part, doing an excellent job in trying to manage cases expeditiously; the police department is having a difficult time dealing with the handling of evidence, much of it that may have been affected by flood waters from Katrina and other institutional problems.”

The damage caused by Katrina devastated the City of New Orleans and everyone within it. Unsurprisingly, the criminal justice system and those detained under it, suffered terribly too. But with a collective push from all segments of the criminal justice system, and the financial resources it has needed for so long, the future for justice in New Orleans could be positive. It is deeply regrettable, however, that it took the worst natural disaster to befall the United States and thousands of people to be deprived of the most basic constitutional rights, for the system to pull itself out from the gutter.

The author is a non-practising barrister who has just returned from working at the Louisiana Capital Assistance Centre in New Orleans