Katrina Amnesty Campaign: on the Status of Prisoners and Public Safety in New Orleans

Hundreds of New Orleans residents trying to survive Katrina were criminalized, arrested and jailed for the charge of 'looting.' Prisoners were abandoned in flooded cells for days, while those able to escape their cells were held at gunpoint on an overpass without food or water. Prisoners who've never even been convicted of anything, whose cases and records have been lost, who've posted bail, and those whose release dates have past are still being held illegally. Poorer residents returning to their homes are being arrested for curfew violations and coerced into guilty pleas without due process, lawyers or phone calls and used to clean out the now toxic Orleans Parish Prison...

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Background: Critical Resistance is a national grassroots organization that works to end the reliance on prisons and policing as responses to what are social, economic and political problems. We have three U.S. offices — one of which was in the Mid City neighborhood of New Orleans — and 11 chapters, one of which is in New Orleans.

New Orleans is an incredibly important place for Critical Resistance. We held our most recent conference in New Orleans' historic Treme community, drawing thousands from New Orleans and the South. Our Southern Regional office — now destroyed — in New Orleans' Mid City neighborhood was Critical Resistance’s hub for the entire South, along with a center for organizing around imprisonment and police brutality in New Orleans itself.

The Status of Prisoners and Public Safety Post-Katrina: In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, we know that prisoners and prisoners' family members have been among the most adversely affected.

Prisoners were left to drown in jail cells. Thousands of people in New Orleans area jails were separated from their families and do not know whether their loved ones are alive or dead. Prisoners were refused the right to call their loved ones or held at gunpoint on freeway overpasses.

And now, thousands of prisoners have been moved to at least 35 different prisons across the country, many are facing the prospect of not being released as scheduled, and an unknown number have had their cases thrown into chaos by lost evidence and records.

Nearly 230 people have been booked in a makeshift jail set up in a New Orleans Greyhound Station, the vast majority for the ‘crime’ of feeding and clothing themselves during the hurricane. The jail has been called “a real start to rebuilding this city.” And, the city is under immense lockdown, with real repercussions for all who live there.

The Demand: We assert that the criminalization of people taking care of themselves and their communities during and after Hurrican Katrina mirrors the larger criminal legal system. The re-building of New Orleasn must challenge that system to address genuine public safety and community needs. Our demand is as follows:

We the undersigned demand unconditional amnesty for people impacted by Hurricane Katrina who were, or might be, arrested or charged for trying to take care of themselves and their families and friends, and that those already in the system, whose cases are potentially affected by Katrina, be released immediately. We further demand that all records of their criminalization be permanently erased from the records of all municipal, state, federal, credit, and employment agencies.


We make these demands with the long-term goals of rebuilding New Orleans in a way that fosters genuine public safety and addresses real community needs.

By “Amnesty” we mean that no one should be arrested, charged, tried, sentenced, fined, imprisoned, jailed, detained, involuntarily relocated, or deported.

Our goals are:

• To gain amnesty for those arrested in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina;

• To challenge the use of the prison industrial complex (PIC) in this disaster while structural disasters such as racism and poverty continue to be ignored;

• To challenge the continued imprisonment of people whose cases have been impacted by Katrina, and the imprisonment and prosecution of so-called “looters”;

• To call attention to the real dangers inherent in rebuilding New Orleans on a foundation of jail cells and militarized streets, and call for genuine public safety based on community based and designed models.


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crnational [at] criticalresistance [dot] org (EMAIL TO SIGN ON TO OUR COALITION)


Amnesty, or forgiveness of charges, is one of several possible remedies for, or responses to, human rights
violations. It is often a key demand raised in response to the imprisonment of people by unjust government
actions. The call for amnesty generally demands the immediate unconditional release of prisoners, primarily
because of the illegitimacy of the arrest and imprisonment.
The Government Response to Hurricane Katrina is Perpetuating Human Rights Violations in New Orleans
Critical Resistance is challenging the imprisonment and prosecution of people whose cases are impacted
by Hurricane Katrina, and the treatment of those incarcerated during and in the wake of the storm. Thousands
have been affected—over 6,000 people were seriously endangered in Orleans Parish Prison (OPP) when Katrina
hit and flooding began, and hundreds more, arrested after the storm, were thrown into chaos. Take, for
example, Melinda Beane who languished in Angola 48 days after she should have been released. Ms. Beane
was held on a warrant that was ultimately dismissed, but had no access to courts. Or there is the plight of Pedro
Parra-Sanchez, “lost” for 13 months after a post-Katrina arrest. Mr. Parra-Sanchez was not arraigned or tried.
He did not see an attorney or the inside of a courtroom until he was finally released in November 2006.
Well-documented systemic failures in preparedness and a lack of evacuation plans played a major role
in the disaster experienced disproportionately by African American and poorer residents of all races in New
Orleans in the days following Katrina. There is growing recognition of the neglect and abandonment of African
American and poor residents of New Orleans as a human rights violation and of those uprooted by the storm as
internally displaced people due rights and remedies under the UN’s Guiding Principles on Internal
The U.S. government has ratified three treaties with the United Nations that protect poor people from
human rights violations: the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Convention on
Elimination of Racial Discrimination, and the Convention against Torture. Nonetheless, Hurricane Katrina and
its aftermath clearly illustrate the ways in which the U.S. ignores its treaty obligations to respect and protect the
people of New Orleans.
Like the violations that characterize the storm’s effects more broadly, the treatment of the Prisoners of
Katrina violates U.S.-ratified international treaties:
The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Articles 7, 9, and 10:
• Article 7 prohibits torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading punishment — People left in OPP were
subjected to horrendous environmental hazards, left without food and water, and many were abandoned in
locked cells as waters rose. When prisoners were finally evacuated some were taken to state prisons where
they were assaulted with racist slurs, beaten by guards, and subjected to routinized physical torture
reminiscent of the infamous Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. One man was badly beaten then forced to lick his
own blood off the floor. Others were threatened by guards dressed in riot gear, made to kneel in one
position perfectly still for hours on end and beaten if they moved.
• Article 9 prohibits arbitrary arrest or detention and the deprivation of liberty except in accordance with the
law and established procedure — Many arrested just before and after Katrina did not see an attorney or
judge for weeks or months after their arrest, effectively denying them due process and forcing them to spend
time in prison they likely would not have otherwise. Many of those arrested directly after the storm, mostly
Black residents, were picked up on arbitrary charges or for trying to help family and friends survive the
floods. Others in OPP awaiting trial, but not convicted, were thrown into legal limbo, left inside when
evidence in their cases was destroyed in the flooding. If there is no evidence to try these prisoners, due
process requires that they must be released.
• Article 10 requires that people deprived of their liberty be treated with humanity and respect — Mayor Ray
Nagin issued a mandatory evacuation order just before Katrina hit. He explicitly exempted all OPP
prisoners and the staff to run the jail. Sheriff Gusman refused offers to help move prisoners, saying that
they would “stay where they belong.” The mayor’s recognition that all residents should leave New Orleans,
For more information call 504.304.3784 or go to criticalresistance.org/katrina
and his choice to allow 6,000 of them to be left behind in danger simply because they were prisoners is in
violation of Article 10. The conditions those prisoners were forced to endure further violated their human
rights. They were left in toxic floodwater, with no outside communication (prisoners’ phones were shut off
two days before the storm even hit), while officials took over four days to evacuate and even then left
prisoners on a highway overpass, bound and under armed guard, maced for standing to stretch or urinate,
still with little food or water.
The Convention Against Torture (CAT), Articles 1 and 2 and The Convention of Elimination of Racial
Discrimination (CERD), Articles 2 and 5:
• Article 1 of CAT prohibits the intentional infliction of severe pain and suffering for any reason based on
discrimination of any kind. Article 2 forbids using exceptional circumstances, including natural disaster, as
justification for torture. Articles 2 and 5 of CERD requires participating states not to sponsor, defend, or
support racial discrimination and asserts the rights of people to bodily safety and security without regard to
race — The mostly Black and poor people in OPP were treated by the state as totally expendable when they
were abandoned and subsequently abused at the hands of Sheriff’s officers and state prison guards.
Prisoners then faced explicit racial harassment and outrageous violence in the prisons to which they were
Amnesty is one of the possible remedies for addressing Katrina-related human rights violations in New Orleans
The Prisoners of Katrina Amnesty Campaign seeks amnesty for people who were arrested for
trying to take care of themselves and their families, people who were kept in custody after their release
date, and people whose rights to due process were violated due to lost or damaged evidence. The campaign
demands that the records of prisoners of Katrina be permanently erased from all municipal, state, federal, credit,
and employment agencies; that no one should be arrested, charged, tried, sentenced, fined, imprisoned, jailed,
detained, involuntarily relocated, or deported as a result of Katrina-specific actions.
After Katrina, the bulk of government apathy was directed at the mostly African American residents of
New Orleans, many of whom lacked the resources to evacuate when Mayor Nagin issued a mandatory order to
do so. Daily reports from the flood ravaged city highlighted “looting” and rumors of violence in the streets, and
at the Superdome and the Convention Center, where thousands of people took shelter and waited for help. For
the most part, Black people were characterized as “thugs” and “hoodlums.” After nearly 15,000 National Guard
troops moved into New Orleans, Governor Blanco’s well-reported warning that the troops were “locked and
loaded” sent a message of terror and resulted in containment through curfews, checkpoints, and intimidation.
Critical Resistance recognizes the massive targeting and incarceration of people of color in the U.S. as a
violation of the prohibitions in the Convention on Elimination of Racial Discrimination on state-fostered racial
discrimination and seeks to apply the requirements of international human rights law to challenge the systemic
root of punishment. Additionally, CR supports new remedies to redress the effects of racism and other human
rights violations that do not rely on the very systems perpetuating those violations.
The call for amnesty is a call to address the injustices suffered by those stranded in a chaotic system, and
ensures that those who have charges pending or convictions on their records for Katrina-specific “crimes” can
move forward with their lives. Today, the frequent use of background checks, particularly for housing and
employment, greatly jeopardizes displaced residents’ right to return home. Individuals with a criminal
conviction or a pending case, as well as their family members can be excluded from public housing and job
opportunities. In a post-Katrina New Orleans, this is particularly egregious. Amnesty minimizes the long-term
consequences—particularly as the city rebuilds—for people and communities most impacted by the prison
industrial complex.
Further, amnesty can fundamentally change the ways in which we think about and approach notions of
genuine public safety. The mobilization of tens of thousands of military and law enforcement personnel in the
wake of Katrina and the abandonment, then systematic abuse, of prisoners highlights practices that are neither
abnormal nor extreme. Rather, they represent the terrifyingly logical outcomes of the prison industrial complex
and its justifications, even in the face of (ostensibly) natural disaster.