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After Ida, advocates call for better planning, communication when evacuating incarcerated people

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Despite a mandatory evacuation order for New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina approached the Louisiana coastline in 2005, Sheriff Marlin Gusman decided the people held in local jail facilities at Orleans Parish Prison would “stay where they belong.”

When the storm hit Aug. 29, it caused generator failure, leaving several thousand detainees, staff and civilians sheltering at the jail in the dark and in severe heat.

Flood-water from sewage and overflowing toilets filled cells locked shut due to the power outage. When Gusman finally decided to evacuate the jail, there were only three boats available because other rescues were taking place.

When Hurricane Ida threatened the safety of New Orleans residents once again, Gusman made a different call — to evacuate the jail before the catastrophic storm hit. But since the evacuation, reports of “dirty and unsafe” conditions at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, where 835 people were transferred, and of communication issues at outer parish jails that were not evacuated despite mandatory orders have advocates once again calling for improved safety measures for people behind bars during a natural disaster.

“After Hurricane Katrina, there was a lot more attention around when should a facility be evacuated, and for new construction, making sure that any new buildings [that] were built could withstand lower level hurricanes,” said Andrea Armstrong, a professor at Loyola University School of Law who focuses on conditions inside correctional facilities. “The part that hasn't been completed is for clear criteria on what types of situations are appropriate for housing people who have been evacuated.”

According to the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office’s Evacuation Policy and Standard Operating Procedure, which was provided with redactions to WWNO/WRKF from a public records request, Orleans Parish Prison facilities should be evacuated if a hurricane above a Category 2 is approaching.

But after evacuees were returned to Orleans Parish Prison, advocates for the incarcerated heard stories of poor conditions at Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola where they were transferred. Detailing their evacuation stay inside a gym at the prison, a letter issued on Sept. 20 to Gov. John Bel Edwards from the Promise of Justice Initiative said the incarcerated people were kept in a gym with fans instead of air conditioning, with bird feces and insects on the floor and with an inadequate supply of water to drink.

The letter also said evacuees were restricted from showering and using phones for days and that COVID-19 protocols weren’t followed.

Armstrong noted that the government has a responsibility to provide for the incarcerated people in its care, regardless of extenuating circumstances.

“If we're going to keep somebody in custody, we are obligated to ensure that they are kept in a safe and humane environment,” she said. “And that obligation does not change, because of a national emergency or a statewide, or even a parish emergency. That obligation is the same.”

In response, the Department of Public Safety and Corrections released a statement that called many of those claims “falsehoods.” The statement said the facility where the evacuees were held was cleaned and disinfected and that clean jumpsuits, hygiene items, brand new bedding, drinking water, ice, showers and toilets were all made available.

The Department of Public Safety Corrections denied a request from WWNO/WRKF for its contract with the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office and for details on how evacuees are housed, citing security risks in the sharing of that information.

Advocates Demand State Evacuation Policy

The Promise of Justice Initiative is advocating for a state-mandated plan that can better prepare state-run correctional facilities to provide appropriate accommodations for incarcerated evacuees.

“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,” said Colin Reingold, the organization’s director of strategic criminal litigation.

The criminal justice advocacy group based out of New Orleans said in its letter they would like to see the plan require all parishes that are likely to be hit by increasingly stronger storms evacuate their incarcerated populations.

It is currently up to a local sheriff to decide whether or not jails should be evacuated when hurricanes are approaching. While Orleans Parish evacuated for Hurricane Ida, two parishes under mandatory evacuation orders — Lafourche and St. Charles — did not evacuate their jailed populations, concern from advocates in the days after Hurricane Ida passed.

“We need to ensure that our leaders are being responsible about protecting the incarcerated residents who are least able to make decisions for themselves in terms of evacuation and proper safety measures,” Reingold said. “And we believe that if there is a mandatory evacuation, that mandatory [evacuation] should apply as well to the incarcerated residents.”

St. Charles Parish Sheriff Greg Champagne said the Nelson Coleman Correctional Center was built to withstand a Category 5 hurricane, and despite power outages, the building was receiving electricity from an industrial generator. The facility had stockpiled enough food in a large freezer to feed people housed at the jail for one month.

He expressed frustration in learning of what he said were false reports that the jail had lost power and that inmates were living in poor conditions, as it was distracting his office from caring for residents of St. Charles Parish, which was hit especially hard by Hurricane Ida.

“All of the rumors about the conditions in the jail being bad are totally false,” Champagne said in a phone interview. “The only thing the inmates were deprived of was hardline phones, as is everyone else in St. Charles Parish.”

On September 2, The Lens reported that the Lafourche Parish Sheriff’s Office also said its jail was running on generator power and was in good condition.

Greater Emphasis on Communication

Because of downed phone lines in those parishes, incarcerated people held in the facilities have been unable to communicate with their attorneys and family members for weeks. Deputies in St. Charles Parish brought in cell phones for inmates to make brief phone calls to loved ones days after the storm passed.

Armstrong explained that the government is obligated to provide a means of communication to people in its custody, even during a natural disaster, and when access to communication is restricted, that can lead to some negative consequences.

“As a matter of best practices, we know that when incarcerated populations are denied access to their families, their friends and their communities, particularly in times of stress, such as a hurricane, or even the pandemic, that misbehavior increases inside of the [facility]. And so, as a matter of best practices, allowing for full and continued access to communication can actually be an important behavior management tool,” she said.

Advocates noted that in the wake of a hurricane, a breakdown in communication adds stress to people behind bars who are unable to learn how their loved ones weathered the storm.

“That lack of communication is extremely hard on families and loved ones and the incarcerated individuals who are already experiencing trauma, and it makes the recovery process that much harder,” Reingold said.

Lack of communication was allegedly a factor even for the people from Orleans Parish who were evacuated to the state penitentiary. The Promise of Justice’s letter said evacuees told advocates that they were restricted from using phones while at Angola.

But Ken Pastorick, DPS&C’s communications director said “phone lines were set up in the evacuee living areas by the second day the offenders were at Louisiana State Penitentiary.”

Orleans Parish Chief Public Defender Derwyn Bunton says there’s room for improvement in communication between the public defender's office and the Sheriff’s office. In the days and hours before Ida hit, attorneys for and loved ones of people held at Orleans Parish Prison knew that the jail was being evacuated, but were not told where inmates would be transferred.

“I think interagency communication is something we really need to work on,” Bunton said. “As counsel for most of the folks who were being held, we could have been a conduit for families, and the community, in where our clients were going. But we didn't get the information ahead of time either, and therefore could not share it,” Bunton said.

That information is often withheld because of the security risk that sharing it might pose. But because transfer times and routes don’t need to be shared, Bunton is skeptical of the actual risk.

He suggested that beyond sharing this information, stakeholders, including the public defender’s office and the department of corrections, should be involved in evacuation drills that consider various scenarios.

The evacuation policy for Orleans Parish Prison requires evacuation drills be conducted, but it does not mention the public defender’s office, and it’s unclear whether drills between the Sheriff’s Office and the Department of Corrections are conducted. Because the DPS&C did not supply any information regarding plans for accepting evacuees, it’s unclear whether state-run prisons have a preparation plan for receiving temporary transfers during natural disasters.

Bunton said communication has at least improved since Hurricane Katrina.

“We knew who our clients were. We knew what their charges were. We were able to get a census later from the sheriff,” he said. “And of course that contrasts with Katrina where we didn't know who our clients were, we didn't know where they were. They were scattered across the state.”

But he said it’s not time to become complacent when advocating for the best treatment for one of society’s most vulnerable populations.

“While we are all better off for what we learned in that just horrible moment, post Katrina, we cannot be satisfied and plant a flag of victory when we know that we still have work to do when it comes to folks who really depend on us for their care and for their freedom,” Bunton said.

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