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BBC TwoThis World


Last Updated: Thursday, 10 August 2006, 15:42 GMT 16:42 UK
Prisoners of Katrina
Olenka Frenkiel
By Olenka Frenkiel
BBC reporter, Prisoners of Katrina

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, while thousands fled New Orleans, the city's prisoners were trapped. Fresh eye-witness accounts reveal what really happened to those left behind, and how crucial forensic evidence was simply washed away.

Hands gripping prison bars
Nearly 7,000 male and female prisoners were left behind

In September 2005, long after most people had fled a devastated city, inmates of Orleans Parish Prison - many of them shackled - were still waiting to be rescued from the blazing heat and the stinking floods.

"They basically abandoned the prison," says Vincent Norman, a chef arrested for an unpaid fine who found himself locked in a cell for days.

Norman should have been there no more than a week. Instead, abandoned without food, drink or sanitation as the waters rose, he was in prison for 103 days.

"We were just left there to die," said Cardell Williams, a prisoner who spent two months in jail without ever being charged.

In the days before the hurricane, when other citizens of New Orleans were ordered to leave, city leaders were asked: "What about the prisoners in the jail?"

"The prisoners will stay where they belong," replied Marlin Gusman, the criminal sheriff in charge of the city jail.

But it was a gamble he would regret.

Break out

Orleans Parish Prison
Orleans Parish Prison has ten jail blocks, its own courts and a morgue

Some of those in Orleans Parish Prison had been arrested for minor misdemeanours, like unpaid fines, or jay-walking. Some had never even been charged.

A third of the inmates were awaiting trial, innocent until proven guilty.

On the night of Sunday 29 August, as Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, they found themselves with violent convicts transferred from other low-lying jails.

The food and drinking water ran out.

Many were in windowless cells in soaring heat.

They began to riot.

Andrew Joseph said he saw a body floating in the water with a rat sitting on its chest

Terrified staff who had brought their families with them to the jail for safety, now found themselves trapped surrounded by floodwater, without phones or radio contact.

Deputy Rhonda Ducre, alone on her wing, had only a torch with fading batteries to keep order in the darkness, as panicked inmates began to break out.

She recalls: "They were shaking on the bars, they were setting fires, they were screaming, they were popping out of their cells. It was dangerous."

Body bags

By Monday night, Sheriff Gusman was forced to change his mind.

But now the evacuation of 7,000 prisoners would be infinitely harder.

Feet in chains
Two days after the evacuation began, some prisoners were still trapped in their cells

They would have to be ferried by boats, six at a time.

In the chaos some were left behind, forgotten, and some inmates reported seeing prisoners who had drowned.

Andrew Joseph said he saw a body floating in the water with a rat sitting on its chest.

There were reports too of other deaths.

A member of the prison staff made a sworn statement that he had removed two body-bags containing the bodies of female deputies who had died, asphyxiated by smoke from burning mattresses.

But with hundreds of bodies already piling up in the morgue, and with so many of New Orleans citizens missing or still displaced, those claims have never been verified.

Legal rights

Prisoners were dispersed and held throughout the state... their court cases unheard for months

The sheriff maintained no prisoners died and none escaped, but later it emerged that arrest warrants had been issued for 14 escaped inmates.

All were recaptured, but not before one of them was re-arrested for another murder while on the run.

Months after the hurricane many were still suffering the consequences of a system peculiar to Louisiana - that of funding public defence lawyers partly from traffic violations revenue.

When the city flooded and the traffic stopped, the money ran out, depriving the poor of their legal rights to a defence.

At one time, the city was reduced to just four defence lawyers, each with an unmanageable caseload.

Prisoners were dispersed and held throughout the state, their charges delayed, their court cases unheard for months.

Destroying the evidence

For those convicted of serious crimes and hoping for a reprieve, however, there were graver consequences still.

Evidence tag among rubble
Vital forensic evidence stored in a basement was destroyed

Forensic evidence stored in the courthouse basement was destroyed, dashing hopes of justice for those wrongly convicted of rape and murder.

Lawyer Dwight Doskey represents clients on death row.

"There will be people - and I've got one in particular that I'm worried about - who may have been exonerated by DNA if the evidence had been stored in a safe place. Those are the people that I feel sorriest for," he says.

New Orleans is notorious both for its low murder clear-up rate and its wrong convictions.

But for those at the bottom of the social heap - the poorest prisoners in one of America's poorest states - Katrina brought a justice system already near to collapse, to a standstill.

This World: Prisoners of Katrina was broadcast on Sunday 13 August, 2006, at 2200 BST on BBC Two.

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