Phyllis Mann Article: Mistreatment of Louisana prisoners after Hurricane Katrina

Update Oct. 9, 2008: Green Party Watch has posted an lengthy statement from the McKinney campaign on the sources of McKinney’s allegations here.

Cynthia McKinney has caught some flack, and gotten some national exposure from Fox news, for saying that 5,000 black prisoners of New Orleans jails were executed during Hurricane Katrina.   There is a kernel of truth here, but not a lot of evidence that people were intentionally murdered.

This is Louisiana lawyer Phyllis Mann ‘s initial report on the severe physical mistreatment of prisoners following Hurricane Katrina. I’m reposting it here in HTML on account if its only being available in PDF format on the web in the archives of the Louisiana Criminal Defense Lawyer’s newsletter , The Advocate.  The article is important for its first person account of the incredible maltreatment of prisoners by New Orleans area law enforcement agencies.  The neglect that Mann describes is shocking.  The suffering is bad enough, without people being killed.

I’m more bemused by the reaction to McKinney’s statement than upset by the claim itself.  Surely the U.S. government has killed enough people to make killing prisoners plausible.  Maybe some people would dispute that.

If I can, I’ll do a post on the other resources that are available.  But I thought this was important enough to post seperately in full.  If  Ms. Mann or the Advocate would like the article removed, I will do so.

Hurricane Relief Aid
By Phyllis Mann
The Advocate: Louisiana Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.
Volume 2, Issue 4.
Fall 2005
Page 3 – 6

When we woke up on Monday, August 29th, the lawyers who had evacuated to my house from New Orleans were all breathing a sigh of relief. What little word there was seemed to suggest that Katrina had veered east at the last minute, sparing New Orleans the worst of what we had expected. Boy were we wrong. By Wednesday, we began to realize just a tiny portion of what Katrina had done to New Orleans and to our criminal justice system. It was on Thursday that we learned our clients had been inside the jails of Orleans, Jefferson, St. Bernard, St. Charles, Plaquemines, St. Tammany, all through the hurricane and the levy breaks. We heard that they were being sent to facilities all over the State of Louisiana – some to parish jails, some to DOC prisons – and no one knew who was being sent where or when.

On September 7, I went to my local sheriff’s prison here in Rapides Parish along with four other volunteer lawyers to meet with the 199 guys who had been evacuated there. The Warden told me that, when they arrived, they had not had water or a hot meal or a change of clothes for three days. I saw men with skin still peeling from lengthy exposure to the water and the sun. We went there to fill out a simple Inmate Tracking Sheet, intending to try to help them find their families, to let their families know where they were and that they were okay, and to figure out who their lawyers were and what parish their case was in so that we could help reconnect them to their attorney and their case. But it grew into so much more than that.

These men began to tell us the stories of the dark days and even darker nights spent in jail during Hurricane Katrina and then the levy breaks. We had not gone there expecting or wanting to hear these stories, but these men needed badly to tell them. The first stories we heard were from men evacuated out of the many Orleans Parish Prison buildings. They received their last meal on Sunday night, it was a cold sandwich. During the night, the power began to go on and off as the Hurricane began to make landfall. Inside the jail, it was dark and the air soon became hot and stale. Without electricity, the controls for the cell doors, dormitory doors, and main doors were inoperable – everyone was trapped. Guards had been required to stay in Orleans during the storm and had been encouraged to bring their families to the jails, so there were children in those buildings also. And the guards were stretched to the breaking point – worrying about their own safety, worrying about the safety of their families, and not doing quite so much worrying about the safety of the people locked inside the cells.

The people who were locked inside were so very much like you and I and especially like our children. There was one young man who had been arrested for reading Tarot cards without a permit, and he was trapped inside. There were college age folks who had come to New Orleans for a good time, but had the misfortune of getting a little too drunk just a day or two before a hurricane. There were young women who were pregnant; young men and women who sadly chose the wrong weekend to try out an illegal drug; middle-aged soccer moms who just had not gotten around to paying that speeding ticket; an older grandmother who was visiting her grandchildren and overstayed her visa from Jamaica; and then there were the poor of New Orleans who were arrested for sleeping on the street (obstructing public passage), “brother can you spare a dime” (begging), $20 bucks for a blow-job mister (solicitation of crime against nature), and the stories go on and on. What all of these people had in common with the men and women charged with murder, rape, kidnapping, and robbery, is that they were all trapped together, inside of a building with no lights, with no air, and they had no food to eat or water to drink. These were the stories that we heard for nine hours on September 7, and they are the stories that we have continued to hear all through September, in every jail and prison in the state. These are the stories that have broken our hearts.

We did get the information that we came for, and that information was also devastating, especially to the soul of a criminal defense attorney trying to cling to belief in the constitution. People were in jail who had posted bond on August 28, but by the time their bond was processed it was “after curfew” so they were not released. People were in jail who were trying to post bond on August28, but the computers went down and they could not and so they were not released. People were in jail who had completed drug court programs like About Face, Blue Walters, Francois, and were scheduled to go in front of the judge on Monday, August 29 to be released, but Monday never came and so they were not released. People were in jail on probation holds and parole holds because they had not paid their $55 supervision fee or their $200 fine, and on Monday there simply was no longer any place to pay or anyone to order them released if they did pay. On Monday morning, August 29, 2005, our court system ceased to exist for a large portion of the citizens of our state – and it ceased to exist for the lawyers as well. St. Bernard Parish miraculously managed to get their inmates out of the parish, but ironically they evacuated them to the Orleans Parish jails. Sheriff Gusman was not only willing to endanger his own citizens, but apparently there was no end to the number of people

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Hurricane Relief Aid Cont. By: Phyllis Mann
Page 4

he was willing to place in harm’s way. More than one inmate reported hearing a call on Sunday night from Angola saying they were ready to accept inmates, but Gusman responded “we’re staying here.”

The tales of what went on inside the jails of Orleans are hard to wrap your mind around. I can not do justice to the terror and pandemonium and chaos in that place. As the water began to rise on the first floors of the buildings, guards did come to move inmates up to higher levels. And perhaps in some buildings they may have stayed – female inmates spoke of the female guards staying with them and helping them to safety – but at least in Templeman 3 and in OPP, once the inmates were moved to higher floors they never saw a guard again. In each dorm on the 3rd floor of Templeman 3, the men from the corresponding 1st floor below were moved up and shared the already crowded space with the 3rd floor men. Now we have federal detainees mixed with state and city pre-trials detainees, mixed with people serving state and parish time; the man who failed to pay his traffic ticket was shoulder to shoulder with the man serving 20 years for manslaughter. They were afraid of each other; they were afraid of dying; they were afraid no one would ever come back for them. Some of the men were locked inside of the individual cells, and the doors could not be opened because there was no power. Many men were locked inside of the day rooms to the dormitories, where there were no toilet facilities.

None of them had access to food, or water, or air. In time, their desperation gave rise to ingenuity. Men in the cells broke out the windows to allow air inside. Men in the dorms used mop handles to break through the plexiglass doors, and then they set fire to the plastic lining until they finally burned their way through. They tried to find food and water, but there was little to be had. They tried to get into the control pods to open the cell doors, but alas still no electricity. Together men inside and outside of the cells set about trying to free everyone. They tied sheets togetherinto ropes and used them as pulleys to take the cell doors off the hinges. They pulled fixtures from walls to use as hammers. They did the things that people do when they are trying to save themselves and others.

Some people dutifully stayed inside the buildings, waving sheets from the windows and pasting signs in the windows saying “help us please.” Some people tried to get out of the buildings. There were law enforcement all around the OPP complex, and sometimes they fired bean bags at the inmates trying to just get out of the stifling darkened building. Inmates both male and female spoke of walking for hours through chest high water, shorter people had trouble staying above the water, folks in wheelchairs had the most trouble of all. By hook or by crook, wading through water or riding in boats, over 3 days time the inmates made it to the Broad Street bridge, where they waited sometimes for hours and sometimes for days. And there was still no food or water for the inmates on the bridge.

Then came the bus rides. Busses pulled up and the first people on to the bus were the people who were driven away – so there was no rhyme nor reason to which inmates ended up where. But most of those busses went to Hunt Correctional Center. At Hunt, the inmates were placed on a football or soccer field, which might have been alright at first, but it was no place for over 8000 people. The field had no toilet facilities, there was no shelter from the sun, and 8000 people who had already been to hell and back waited to see where they would go next. None of them knew what had happened to their families. None of them knew what had happened to their homes. And none of them knew what lay ahead for them. The field became a pit, and the guards began simply throwing sandwiches over the fence to the inmates. The lucky inmates were the ones who arrived early and left early; the unlucky ones had their skin baked in the Louisiana sun for up to 3 days. Between August 30 and September 3, most of the inmates from Orleans, Jefferson, St. Tammany, St. Charles, St. Bernard, and Plaquemines parishes finally made it to a jail or a prison somewhere in the state. But no one – not the sheriffs’ departments and not the Department of Corrections – had any idea who was where or whether everyone was accounted for. As Wardens and Sheriffs worked to identify the men and women in their custody, we worked to identify them too. And strangely enough, even though we don’t have access to NCIC and booking photos and fingerprint matching, we have come a much longer way toward knowing where all our clients have gone than all the law enforcement agencies put together.

Criminal defense lawyers from all over the state, from Shreveport to Marrero and from Tallulah to Lake Charles, and many themselves without homes or offices or clothes or computers, worked days and nights and weekends and are working still to go and sit across the table from each and every inmate to let them know they are not forgotten. Every phone we have is ringing with calls from mamas and children and brothers and grandpas asking for help for their loved one in jail and crying with relief to hear that someone has cared enough to give that help. Grown men in jails have broken down in tears and said “I just want to know if mama’s okay.” Over and over again we have heard “please just tell us something. No one is telling us anything.” For all of the month of September, we have methodically gone into jails and entered data into huge systems and slowly filed lawsuits to try to free those folks who long since should have been restored to their families in shelters from Houston to Utah. Once it was a pretty simple thing to file a motion or make a bond or serve a pleading on the opposing party – that is all different now. There have been no courts, no phone number where you can call a clerk, no place where you can make a bond. Whether a lawyer can even see their own client has been at the whim of the warden of the facility where the client happened to disembark from the bus he hapHurricane

(continued on Page 5)
Relief Aid Cont. By: Phyllis Mann
Page 5

pened to get on out of that football field at Hunt. There have been no rules; there has been no law. Nineteen men were released from Rapides Parish on September 20 on a state habeas petition. Forty-seven women were released from Camp F at Angola (yes, female pre-trial detainees are being housed at our state’s most notorious maximum security prison) on September 22 on a federal 1983 action. Twelve men were released from five varied facilities on September 28 and 29 on a federal habeas petition. One man was released from Catahoula on a state habeas petition. Along the way, one municipal judge out of Orleans has signed a smattering of orders releasing two people here and fivepeople there. A really interesting order came through our handsduring the last week of September. The Department of Corrections sent out a notice to all Wardens, providing an alphabetical listing of names of OPP municipal inmates “who are eligible for release.” But they weren’t releasing them. Instead, the plan was “to release 35 inmates per day over a period of eight days (excluding weekends).” 280 people were not supposed to be in jail, but the DOC was boldly and blatantly holding them anyway. Every day I find myself saying “don’t you think it is strange that . . .” but then I remember that everything is strange; nothing is normal. Just how strange things are was brought home to us once again on September 20 during a visit to Winn Correctional Center to interview the 460 or so inmates evacuated there. Some 65 of those guys had started out in Jefferson Parish, and this is the sum of what they told us.

The male inmates from Jefferson Parish seem to have been taken care of while in the Jefferson Parish jail, but that good care came to an almost immediate end when they were finally evacuated. Jefferson Parish evacuated on August 30, the day after the hurricane. Eight busses left Jefferson parish in a caravan, headed to Hunt Correctional Center. When they arrived at Hunt, 2 of the busses were allowed to unload the men there, but 6 busloads of men were turned away. The men on those 6 busses just sat on the bus during refueling. The busses were redirected to a facility in Jena. The facility was formerly the Jena Juvenile Justice Center under the operation of Wackenhut. This facility was shut down in 2000 by the federal and state governments due to serious abuse of juveniles housed there. It’s hard to imagine that a building could be evil, but this building seems to come as close as any can. Just the route to it was fraught with danger.

As the busses were going from Hunt to Jena, one of the busses was in a wreck in Ferriday, Louisiana. The driver fell asleep (he had been driving, apparently, for something between 9 and 14 hours), and hit an electrical pole, throwing men all over the bus. These men were shackled with flexicuffs with the backs of their hands together and they had no way to protect themselves in the wreck. The next bus kept going and ran straight into a live electrical light, which caused electrical shocks to the passengers. The first bus stopped, then decided to try to go on, but it began smoking and they had to bring another bus for those inmates.

Then they got to the Jena facility finally at about 5:25 am on Wed Aug 31. (The bus that was in the wreck did not arrive until around 8 am.) The guards there seemed to come from several places: Wade Correctional, LaSalle Parish, and some guys wearing “Tactical Force” uniforms. The guards there repeatedly referred to the inmates as “nigger” and “boy.” The inmates were locked into dorms and were not allowed to use the telephones, even though they had been locked down in a hurricane and then a flood and had no idea what had happened to their families and their families had no idea where they were. The men were not allowed to watch television, which would have been their only source of information about what had happened to their homes and families. They were fed only sandwiches.

By Saturday, the guys in one of the dorms started yelling at the guards demanding to use the telephones. The guards then started pulling guys out of all of the dorms – even guys who were asleep. The guards drug them across the floor by their hair; one guy was drug by his feet and came right out of his clothes. The guards shackled them at the wrists so tightly that almost all of the men had wounds to their wrists that were still clearly visible over two weeks later. Several men reported complete loss of use of some of their fingers and loss of feeling in their hands. Many of the guys were also shackled at their ankles. The guards beat them, hit them, kicked them, all while the guys were shackled. The guards forced the inmates to “stand on the wall” on their knees (this means standing upright on your knees facing the wall) for between 3 and 5 hours. During that time the guards continued to beat them; sprayed the walls with mace and forced the inmates to hold their faces against the maced walls. Many of the inmates fell down and were beaten for falling. Many of the inmates became ill and vomited, and guards would wipe their faces and hair in the vomit. Some, but not all, of the inmates were moved on Sat, Sept 3, from Jena to Winn Correctional Center, which is a Louisiana DOC facility. The Jena guards selected which inmates would be moved, and they selected all of the inmates with long hair (braids, dredlocks) because they knew that the DOC makes inmates cut their hair. The guys at Winn told us these appalling stories of physical abuse occurring at Jena, but most importantly they told us that there was still a large number of Jefferson Parish inmates who were being held at Jena.

Our first thought was to get to Jena as quickly as possible. But Katrina’s sister Rita loomed and then arrived. We were without power and then without water, and we could not get to Jena until Tuesday, September 27. By then, the poor men evacuated there had lived almost 4 weeks in the twilight zone. The two attorneys who talked to those men that day learned that the inmates held at

(continued on Page 6)
Hurricane Relief Aid By: Phyllis Mann
Page 6

Jena were continuing to be subjected to horrifying abuse, both physical and mental. It was something right out of Abu Graib. The lawyers could not meet with all of the 300 inmates in one day, so they made plans to go back two days later, hoping their impending return would provide some protection for the men. Two days later, not only did the rest of the inmates confirm the abuse, but men who had spoken to the lawyers on Tuesday had been beaten and placed in segregation for telling the lawyers about the abuse. And on Thursday we learned that inmates from Calcasieu Parish had been evacuated to the Jena facility after Rita.

It seemed that every day brought more and worse problems. Our skills as lawyers often seemed futile in a world with no justice system in it. There just had to be something we could do. On Friday we notified the Department of Justice of the situation. We also made pleadings calls to Human Rights Watch, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, and members of the media. People all over the country got to work immediately and contacted Louisiana state legislators. Those legislators (primarily members of the black caucus, I believe) were outraged and have worked quickly to take control of the facility. On Saturday, legislators were demanding that the Louisiana State Police take over the facility immediately, protect the inmates, and preserve evidence of abuse and the identity of the perpetrators.

There has been so much bad this month in Louisiana. There has been so much good. I hesitate to try to name all of the people who have pitched in, given over completely their offices and their homes and their lives, but I want to bear witness to the strength that we have together, so I will try to name names and pray that I don’t leave anyone out.

Paul Marx, Ed Greenlee, Elton Richie, who from the very beginning gave us access to each other through the internet and blogs and websites and helped out those of us who are technologically challenged. Keith Nordyke, who got us into the DOC facilities and then kept us there. David Stone, Harold Murray, Michael Brewer, Ron Ware, Michael Ned, Stephen Coward, Bob Noel, Carey Ellis, Vicki Cranford, Pat Gilley, Harold Gilley, Mary Winchell, Corey Rubin, Mack Hollis, Satrica Williams-Bensaadat, Richard White, Paul Lemke, Ursula Price, Bonnie Renou, Neal Walker, Christine Lehmann, David Park, Meg Garvey, Rachel Jones, Richard Davis, Gary Proctor, Melanie Carr, Rodney Baum, lots of LSU law students, inmate counsel, case managers, all spent endless long hot hours in loud and unpleasant jail cells and dorms and visiting rooms meeting with literally thousands of inmates who were starving for help and information. Richard Goorley and all of his staff, who manned the original databases as we floundered through the early days of how to share information with each other. Ben Cohen, Jelpi Picou, Billy Sothern, Marcia Widder, who stood up and said we have to file a habeas in Rapides, at a time when all of their friends were telling them the sky would fall if they did. Paul Lemke who quietly and successfully filed a habeas in Catahoula Parish while no one was looking. Michele Fournet, Jill Craft, Audrey McCain, Julie Kilborn, Mary Olive Pierson, Carol Kolinchak, June Denlinger, all interviewed women in Camp F and refused to rest until a 1983 action was filed for their release. They sought and received help from Mary Howell, Carol Sobel, and others who know much more about civil rights litigation than we criminal defense types ever will. Nick Trenticosta who filed the habeas for the remaining Angola women and for 33 other men in facilities all over the state. George Steimel who somehow managed to get a system set up where people could actually post a bond again on a New Orleans charge. Julie Kilborn, who has taken on the enormous task of coordinating all hurricane relief efforts to the entire criminal defense bar in Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama, and David Price, for allowing her to do it. Michele Ghetti, Rick Teissier, Raleigh Ohlmeyer, Rebecca Hudsmith, Virginia Schleuter, Walt Sanchez, Melissa Flournoy, Jim Boren, Buddy Spell, Tilden Greenbaum, Richard Bourke, Mary Jane Marcantel, Malia Brink, David Carroll, Corinne Carey, Barry Gerharz, Vanita Gupta, Eric Balaban, Elizabeth Alexander, Amy Goodman, Henry Weinstein, David Rohde, reporters too numerous to name – all who stepped up to fill a huge gap at just the right time when they were the only person who could do that one particular job. We have still so far to go in rebuilding our criminal justice system.

I could never have imagined how quickly civilization could all be washed down the river – how tenuous our hold on humanity really is. This has been a test. It’s a lot like the bar exam; winner take all. We need to win.


Posted on October 3, 2008, in 2008 Presidential election, Hurricane Katrina, McKinney, prisons, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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