Testimonies of Evacuees

Melinda Beane
Date Published: 
October 13, 2005

Testimonies of Evacuees

Profiles of individual prisoner evacuees and their families who either should have been released by now, or who were released long after they should have been.

I. Arrestees who Were Never Sentenced

Beane, the mother of two children, was arrested for receiving a positive drug test and then held on a warrant in a case that was subsequently dismissed. If Beane had had access to the courts, she would have been released as soon as the error was discovered, shortly after she was evacuated to Angola State prison. Instead, forty-eight days after she should have been released, Beane spoke to Human Rights Watch from the state prison.

“My kids need me,” Beane said. “I’m not even supposed to be here!” Calling collect from a pay phone in the prison, she cried softly as she told Human Rights Watch about her nine-month-old baby girl and her fifteen-year-old son, taken in by her sister, after the storm. “Just tell my sister, if you speak to her, thank you,” she asked.

Beane’s sister told Human Rights Watch: “All of my family members live in New Orleans. I wasn’t able to find out where they were, but once they arrived at the Astrodome [in Houston], my aunt made contact with my mother. I bought a plane ticket for my niece and nephew because they didn’t have their mother. I was under the impression that [my sister] was supposed to be released the weekend the hurricane hit. But once they transferred her, I just thought it was the hurricane that held it up. Now, it’s every time I call, ‘we don’t know.’ I get nothing, no information about why she’s still there. … I am really just at a point of confusion to the point where I can’t feel . . . I really don’t know anything, I just know her children need someone to care for them. I’m here as long as they need me. But it’s really frustrating, I get the run around [when I call], the prison sends me to the office, the office sends me to the DA [district attorney].”

When Human Rights Watch asked her what she tells her sister’s son about when he will see his mother again, Beane’s sister sighed and said, “There’s nothing I can tell him, nothing I can do to comfort him … She’s been able to call a few times, and he’s gotten to hear her voice, so that’s some comfort.”

Cornell Chapman is twenty years old. He was arrested in May 2005, one week before his son was born, for a misdemeanor charge of discharging a firearm within the New Orleans city limits. He was unable to make bail and had spent several months in Orleans Parish Prison before Hurricane Katrina hit. He was evacuated to Rapides Parish Detention Center in Alexandria, Louisiana.

“My girl just had my little one,” Chapman said from the parish prison, where Human Rights Watch interviewed him. “I need to be with my family right now. . . . They leave us in the blind, give us no kind of information. . . . We’ve been through hell and they [corrections officials] don’t care anything about it.” After evacuating New Orleans and relocating to Tallahassee, Florida, Chapman’s girlfriend, Melanie Tucker, searched for information about him on the Internet. It took her three weeks—as it did for most families because information about inmates was not fully available until three weeks after the storm—to find out that he was okay and being held at Rapides. Tucker borrowed the $3,500 needed to post bond for Chapman, called the clerk of the court in Alexandria, where Rapides is located, who told her that she could come up and post bond, and located a bail bondsman in Alexandria. On October 5, Tucker boarded a bus with her four-month-old son to go back to Louisiana to post Chapman’s bond. That night, she handed over the bond money to the bail bondsman. But the next morning, he came by to tell her that he could not get Chapman out because he was not licensed in New Orleans. “I called the clerk,” Tucker said. “I went to Alexandria to do this because that’s where he is.” None of the criminal defense attorneys working on bond issues for prisoner evacuees could explain why the court refused to accept bond from the local bail bondsman.

On her way back on the bus to Tallahassee, someone stole over $3,000 of the bond money from her purse as Tucker was throwing out the baby’s diaper. She arrived home at 4:45 in the morning on Friday, October 8. When she spoke with Human Rights Watch that day, she said: “It is a hurting feeling because he hasn’t been able to see his son yet. I am really aggravated, but I’m trying to do everything I possibly can do. All the way for nothing, and all the way back here.”

“If you ever have a chance to talk to him,” she said to the lawyer from Human Rights Watch, “Will you tell him I love him?”

Faison was arrested in New Orleans just before the hurricane and charged with public drunkenness. He was held in Orleans Parish Prison and was evacuated after the hurricane to the Caddo Correction Center, a state facility. He remains locked in the prison six weeks after his arrest. He has never been convicted, nor has he ever appeared before a judge on this charge.

John Rust was arrested on August 26, 2005, on a 2004 warrant for failing to appear in court on an outstanding charge. Rust states that he was never informed of the court date—a fact confirmed by the docket master report from the Orleans Parish Criminal district court. But Rust never got to explain this because of hurricane Katrina.

His wife, Jenny, was not able to locate him until September 11th. She subsequently paid a lawyer a thousand dollars for his release, but, as of October 11, he was still being held. As she explained to Human Rights Watch:

“I paid a thousand dollars for a lawyer who told me last week he’d be out between Friday and Monday. Now tomorrow is Monday and its Columbus day, they’re not gonna open the courts and let him out! I just got through calling the prison and found out he’s been moved again! Believe me I know there are real criminals out there, but its like, If you were out there in an orange suit you’re all criminals. Your life wasn’t worth anything… some people after the hurricane were getting tremendous help, other people got worse than nothing. It’s been 45 days since he’s been gone, and I made myself a calendar of it, and living through the hurricane without him. It’s been hell. We’ve lost our home, we had no insurance, we lost everything. Now I just have these four walls and a telephone.”

Michael Bane is a seventy-year-old homeless man. He was arrested on August 13, 2005 in New Orleans on three municipal offenses: obstructing a public passage, public intoxication, and begging. The judge set bond for Bane at $300 on each of these charges, but he did not have the money to pay the bond, so he remained in Orleans Parish Prison awaiting an appearance before a judge. Had he had access to a court after the storm, he would likely have been released 10 days from the date he’d been arrested.

II. Those Whose Sentences Have Expired but Are Not Yet Released

Pritchard was arrested on August 25, 2005 in New Orleans for missing an appointment to take a drug test, a violation of his probation on a conviction for a first offense misdemeanor marijuana possession. He was sentenced to five days and should have been released August 30th. He was moved from Orleans Parish Prison to Claiborne Detention Center, a state facility.

Human Rights Watch spoke to Pritchard’s wife, who relocated to the Midwest with their children after Katrina. She spoke from the hotel room where she is now living:

“We started calling [Orleans Parish Prison] before we left the state before the hurricane to determine that they were going to release those who were supposed to be released that week. They told us, ‘No we’re not releasing anyone. [After the storm] I was agonizing over where [my husband] could possibly be, my little nephew, too. We found both of them. [After I found him] I called the 1-800 number [the DOC had set up for families] but I feel like I have been beating my head against a wall. . . . Everyday it’s the same thing, they don’t know when he’ll be released. . . . Of course the kids wonder where their father is, but what answers can you give them? They just take it one day at a time. That’s for all of us. . . . They keep telling us they are releasing them as soon as possible, and when another week goes by, and I ask why they [the prison that is holding her husband] haven’t released him. ‘It’s a process,’ they say, ‘we would love to let him go, but we don’t have an order [from the court].’ People look at them [prisoners like her husband] that they’ve done wrong, but you have to look at the human side of things. They have done wrong, but now they are scheduled to be released. They should be released. I have no magic words, other than it is an injustice. . . . Believe it or not, this is what they told me they were doing, people have been released alphabetically. [B]ut there are so many of them.”

On August 15, 2003, Vincent Chaiken, sixty-five years old, was arrested in New Orleans and held at Orleans Parish Prison on two municipal charges: public drunkenness and sleeping on public property. He was sentenced to 21 days in jail, and therefore should have been released within the first few days of September. Although he was transferred to Hoyle Rehabilitation Center, a state correctional facility, he is not listed on any official lists of prisoner evacuees from the Orleans Parish Prison transferred to state facilities. He was only discovered because, in the weeks following the mass evacuation, teams of attorneys visited each prisoner evacuee held in custody to determine their status.

Ben Chapman was on probation for drug-related charges when he was taken into custody on August 24 in New Orleans, because he had not attended an Alcohol Anonymous meeting, a condition of his probation. He was sentenced to serve 7 days in jail and should have been released on September 1. He was still being held at Rapides Parish Detention Center in Alexandria, Louisiana, when Human Rights Watch visited him on October 9, 2005.

Chapman and his girlfriend Katrina Benjamin have two children, a two-year-old girl and a baby girl born on September 20, three weeks after the hurricane. Human Rights Watch spoke to Benjamin as she was driving back to Texas with her father and her two children to be with her mother.

“I’m makin’ it, but for the kids,” Benjamin told Human Rights Watch. “ [My two year old] asks all the time where [her father is] and when he’s coming home and I don’t know what to tell her.” After the storm, Benjamin searched for Chapman for three weeks on the Internet and was relieved when she finally found out he was okay. But now, she feels “aggravated, disgusted ‘cause I know he should be here. I call that 1-800 number [from the Department of Public Safety and Corrections], and they tell me he’s supposed to be released, but they’re not doing nothing about it. They should be gettin’ them papers.”

Chapman told Human Rights Watch he was placed in isolation after threatening to file an administrative grievance against a corrections officer who called him a “stupid New Orleans inmate.”

III. Those Who Have Been Released

Anne Cross is the mother of a two-month-old baby boy, Steven. She was arrested on August 16 in New Orleans after testing positive for drugs, a violation of her probation for an earlier drug possession charge. She was released three weeks later on September 22. Her husband left New Orleans for San Antonio after the hurricane, taking care of their son and searching for information about Anne. She joined him in San Antonio after she was released. During a telephone interview, she recounted the following to Human Rights Watch:

“Our sheriff Marlin Gusman got on national TV on Friday before the storm and when they asked him what is he going to do he said ‘I will leave them where they belong, in prison.’ Warden Burl King came from Angola State Prison, he told the whole group, he went from dorm to dorm, to explain that Angola was prepared to come and get us. But Gusman, he didn’t prepare for the hurricane. Sunday was the last night we got fed a hot meal. Monday morning we got grits, but that was it. No drinking water. They turned the phones off that Friday night, we couldn’t contact our families. I was in Concetta, CTA, one of the women’s buildings. Once the hurricane hit, the deputies abandoned us, slowly but surely. There were three deputies in there with us in CTA by Thursday. Monday through Thursday, there was no running water, no food. The Red Cross came and dropped care packages on the roof, we found out later. . . . I was locked in a dorm with no ventilation and no lights, for four days. It was terrifying, I have nightmares now, I can’t believe it, it’s so cruel. You know a major hurricane is coming, they can turn the phones off, but make no kind of preparation. It’s outrageous, you’re responsible for us, and you can’t get no kind of water, no kind of hurricane preparation. . . . the water was to my waist . . . It was inhumane. . . . Every child in New Orleans knew that if the hurricane was above a category 3 that the water was going to come . . . We were in the lowest area of the city . . . We had no supervision, no protection, or medical attention. There was a pregnant woman on the first floor, they moved her to the second floor when the water got too high, then they moved her to the third floor. One of the women had a seizure and they thought she was joking. She wasn’t”

Marge Bradshaw, fifty-five, was walking with her son in a parking lot in New Orleans the day before the storm hit. Her son is thirty-four years old, but suffers from mental retardation and is unable to care for himself. The police pulled up next to mother and son, arrested Bradshaw, and charged her with public intoxication. Bradshaw was taken to Orleans Parish Prison on August 28. She was evacuated to Angola State Prison. Lawyers filed a 1983 civil rights suit on behalf of her and 93 other women, seeking the release of those whose release dates had either passed or were imminent, or who were charged with minor misdemeanors and had already served more than 21 days since the hurricane. Marge was released towards the end of the first week of October after forty days of incarceration.

Describing conditions in Orleans Parish Prison before she was evacuated, Marge said: “For three days and three nights, we were in our own sewer, in our own urine. When we got to Angola, we smelled like dead rats. Honey, I have never seen such horrible tragedy in my life. . . . They were going to leave us there to die. Like we were animals. I was on the first floor, the main floor, of the Central booking system, they moved me up to the second bunk because the water was up over my head. . . .What I was in Angola, I thought I lost the whole world, I didn’t know how I would survive. It was the worst feeling, hell couldn’t be much worse.”

Ross Angle finished serving ten days for a trespassing charge and was set for release on August 29th from Orleans Parish Prison. As the hurricane approached, he was eager to get home to his family and his pregnant wife. “They shut off the phones on the 28th and told us that we couldn’t call anyone. On the 29th they were supposed to let me out, but they told me they had to hold me because of the hurricane. At that point it wasn’t even raining that hard. I said ‘you’ve gotta be kidding me.’ My family was waiting for me. I’ve got a baby on the way, my lady is seven months pregnant. I had a job to get back to. I was stuck there. I couldn’t even make a call to explain.” He didn’t get to call his family until he was moved to St. Francis Parish Prison, a small rural jail over a week later. “I felt awful, my family was crying, no one knew what happened to me.”

Angle did not have anything to eat or drink until the next Wednesday, when sandwiches were thrown over the fence onto the football field at Hunts Correctional Facility, where evacuated prisoners were taken before they were transferred to the facility that would hold them. “I’ve never been in jail before in my life. I’m not a criminal. I wasn’t even supposed to be there! By Tuesday at 6 a.m., the water was 3 feet high. We had no food, no lights, the toilets overflowed into the water that rose up to my stomach by the time they brought us outside. I’m still having nightmares thinking I’m surrounded by water in those walls.”

He described his fear: “Picture waking up everyday in a prison somewhere—you don’t even know where you are—knowing you were supposed to be free, not knowing how long they were going to keep you there. Not knowing if it would ever end. After they moved me, I kept asking for someone to look at my case and they just kept telling me ‘we’re waiting on the DOC guys, we don’t know anything.’ If my lady wasn’t seven months pregnant calling them everyday and yelling then I would probably still be there. . . . It made me feel worthless. They treated me like I had no right to live. I’ll never forget what I’ve been through.”

“And you know what?” Angle said to the Human Rights Watch lawyer who interviewed him, “You’re the first person who has told me they’re sorry that I went through that.”

Mitch McDonnell was in New Orleans providing home care for his disabled mother when he was arrested for trespassing on July 28th and sentenced to thirty days in Orleans Parish Prison. He was scheduled to be released on August 28th. He says he was in a 30 man cell with 75 inmates on the second floor. At one point he says, he succeeded in getting some other trapped prisoners out of their cells but not all of them. He expressed concern that not every inmate made it out alive.

“I was scared to death. There were no guards, no food, no lights …I didn’t know if my momma was dead. That was my biggest concern, she can’t walk, she lost both legs and she’s on dialysis.” He was evacuated to a prison in Monroe, Louisiana over an hour away.

When he was finally released on October 3rd, he was dropped off at a Salvation Army in North Monroe and given $10. Human Rights Watch spoke with his brother Henry who drove 62 miles to pick him up there. “We’re so happy to have him back. We were scared to death when the hurricane came, he was supposed to be out we, didn’t know what happened to him.” Human Rights Watch also spoke with his grandmother, Dorothy Donne. “He reads his bible. That boy loves his mother so much, He washed her, changed her, cared for her. She didn’t have anybody else.” The family feared that he might have died in the storm. But, Donne said, “God has a plan for him and we just feel so blessed.”

Asked how he was feeling, Mitch responded, “I’m feeling tired. After what I’ve been through it’s going to take some time to adjust.”

Kurt Shields was arrested in New Orleans for a speeding ticket on August 27th. He was incarcerated in Orleans Parish Prison and evacuated to Concordia Correctional Center. But his family did not know where he was until a month after the evacuation.

Shields’s wife told Human Rights Watch: “I finally had to pay a lawyer $500 to make a few phone calls to get him out. Otherwise he would still be in there. He was not released until October 6th. He was in there for thirty five days for a traffic ticket! They were abandoned and they were mistreated. I wouldn’t want that for anyone. Even for murderers—they’re human beings and shouldn’t be mistreated. Their lives were in the state’s custody. I don’t know how they could do this to people.”

When asked about Kurt’s job as a roofer, his wife’s laugh was tinged with sorrow, “Well, he’s got plenty of work for him right now. There’s plenty of damage.”

Related Material

Louisiana: Justice Obstructed, Not Restored
Press Release, October 13, 2005

Letter to New Orleans Sheriff Gusman Regarding the Evacuation Plan for Orleans Parish Prison
Letter, October 8, 2005

Louisiana: Detainee Abuse Requires Federal Probe
Press Release, October 5, 2005

Letter to Secretary Stalder Regarding Abuses of Inmates Evacuated after Katrina
Letter, October 3, 2005

Louisiana: After Katrina, Inmates Face Prison Abuse
Press Release, October 3, 2005

New Orleans: Prisoners Abandoned to Floodwaters
Press Release, September 22, 2005

Letter to Secretary Spellings Regarding Waivers that Could Keep Child Victims of Katrina out of School
Letter, September 26, 2005

What You Can Do

Resources for Katrina Prisoner Evacuees and Their Families