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Advocates Say Ida Evacuees From Orleans Parish Prison Were Met With 'Dirty And Unsafe' Conditions

Angola
msppmoore
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Flickr Creative Commons
The entrance to Louisana State Penitentiary, better known as Angola Prison.

Advocates for incarcerated people are speaking out on behalf of inmates at Orleans Parish Prison who were evacuated for Hurricane Ida to Louisiana State Penitentiary, also known as Angola Prison.

A September 20 letter from the advocacy group Promise of Justice Initiative addressed to Gov. John Bel Edwards detailed poor conditions, neglect and violence that those inmates said they experienced.

The letter reveals a need for improved policy, planning and coordination between local sheriffs -- who decide whether or not to evacuate people housed in local jails -- and the state’s Department of Public Safety and Corrections during and after a natural disaster.

“There needs to be a top-down, coordinated plan from the Department of Corrections and the governor,” said Colin Reingold, an advocate with the Promise of Justice Initiative. “I think it is incumbent upon state level leaders to put in place a statewide plan to ensure that not just the Department of Corrections facilities, but individual parish jails are being held accountable in the event of another required evacuation or another serious hurricane.”

‘Dirty And Unsafe Facilities’

Since Hurricane Ida slammed into the Louisiana coast as a Category 4 storm, the Promise of Justice Initiative, which aims to improve the lives of those impacted by the criminal justice system, has been collecting stories from people held behind bars and their family members. Advocates said they were told that evacuees from the jail in New Orleans were held in “dirty and unsafe facilities.”

According to the letter, inmates were held in a gym and a chapel for two to three days without access to the outside. They slept on mattresses on the floor that were not socially distanced. They said masking to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 was also not observed during the evacuation. The letter said the gym where inmates were held had birds living in it, and the facility’s floor was covered in bird excrement, bugs, standing water and garbage.

“In one place, there were only two toilets and one urinal available for use — and no toilet paper — for at least 150 individuals,” the letter read.

The Promise of Justice Initiative also detailed a lack of access to regular medications. One man said he did not receive medication for his mental health condition or blood pressure medication for several days.

It also alleged that there was limited access to showers and suggested that Orleans Parish sheriff’s deputies who oversaw the evacuees kept the group from showering for multiple days.

The letter also said “violent scuffles'' occurred. These altercations resulted in some inmates being sent to Camp J – Angola’s notorious disciplinary unit that was shut down in 2018 and was reopened during the pandemic to quarantine COVID-positive inmates.

Staff from the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office allegedly “indiscriminately” pepper sprayed evacuees in their care, including one man who witnesses said was pepper sprayed before and after he was tackled and handcuffed. Another man with asthma, who was also COVID-19 positive at the time of the evacuations, told Promise of Justice advocates that he was pepper-sprayed.

The letter said Louisiana State Penitentiary guards treated evacuees with more cruelty than they treated regular inmates at the prison.

“One man who uses a pacemaker approached the LSP guards with a need and received a black eye in return,” the letter stated.

The Department of Public Safety and Corrections Said PJI Was 'Misled'

In a statement, Kenneth Pastorick, communications director for the Department of Public Safety and Corrections, said the letter that the Promise of Justice Initiative sent to Edwards is “filled with many falsehoods.”

“The Promise of Justice Initiative seems to have been misled in the accusations that have been made in their letter,” the statement said.

Pastorick’s note said that Orleans Parish Prison staff and the roughly 800 evacuees that took shelter at the Louisiana State Penitentiary made no complaints during their stay.

Pastorick said the facilities where evacuees were held were “disinfected” and that the mattresses and sheets provided had never been used.

In response to PJI claiming that inmates had received limited showers, the statement said Orleans Parish Prison inmates were given personal hygiene items, water coolers filled with ice and water, and access to “plenty of showers and toilets.” It also said Louisiana State Penitentiary provided fresh masks, jumpsuits and laundry service to evacuees.

The statement said phone lines were set up within days in the areas where evacuees were held, but because Hurricane Ida damaged communications across southeast Louisiana, phone service was “sporadic.”

The DOC statement did acknowledged that individuals who required disciplinary action were sent to Camp J.

“The Department of Public Safety and Corrections is proud of the professional support it provided the local sheriff’s jails and facilities leading up to, during and after Hurricane Ida,” the statement said.

A representative from the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office did not respond to inquiries regarding PJI’s letter and the conditions during the evacuation.

Bobbi-Jeanne Misick is the justice, race and equity reporter for the Gulf States Newsroom, a collaboration between NPR, WWNO in New Orleans, WBHM in Birmingham, Alabama and MPB-Mississippi Public Broadcasting in Jackson. She is also an Ida B. Wells Fellow with Type Investigations at Type Media Center.

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