Revolution #65, October 15, 2006


Doing “Katrina Time”—Torture in New Orleans Prisons

Part 2: Evacuation Nightmare

by Li Onesto

This series is based on a 141-page report, “Abandoned & Abused: Orleans Parish Prisoners in the Wake of Hurricane Katrina,” released on August 10, 2006, by the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Prison Project. Based on questionnaires received from 1,300 prisoners, as well as interviews with current and recently released Orleans Parish Prison (OPP) prisoners, the report contains extensive and damning testimony and evidence of the inhuman and racist torture-like conditions and treatment that OPP prisoners have been subjected to. Part one of this series, “Locked Cells in Rising Water,” told how prisoners were abandoned, some in locked cells, when Katrina hit and water flooded into the prison, and how deputies later came back and used mace, tasers, batons, and shotguns against prisoners who were struggling to survive. This Part 2 tells the story of how thousands of prisoners were evacuated under inhuman and brutal conditions.

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Three small boats. Almost 7,000 people. What did this mean for the prisoners in Orleans Parish Prison who had already been abandoned and abused? It took over three days to evacuate everyone. People had to stand in chest-deep water waiting to be rescued for up to ten hours. And this was only the beginning of what was to be an evacuation nightmare.

Albert G. Couvillion, one prisoner interviewed by the ACLU, said: “People were scared and were screaming that they could not swim… On Wednesday we were escorted out with our hands on our heads and automatic guns pointed at us. I waded through slimy, greasy, trash-filled sewage water up to my neck to boats waiting for us 1½ blocks from the jail.”

There were 354 juveniles being held in OPP when Hurricane Katrina hit. They, too, told horror stories of the evacuation—how they were tied together with plastic cuffs, pulled out by a rope, and put on boats. One 15-year-old boy said: “It was scary because I can’t swim and they were pulling us by our shirts and I went under the water a few times. I even swallowed a lot of water.”

The water was very deep and some prisoners were too short or too weak to stand above the water on their own.

One woman told of how she carried an elderly woman on her back from her building to Central Lock-Up where prisoners were being herded together to be evacuated. She said. “We waded through 4½ sometimes 5 foot deep water. I carried a 65 year old lady on my back because she was 4 foot 9 inches and could not swim and had a heart condition and the officers told her that if she didn’t learn to swim quick they had a body bag with her name on it…”

Interstate Highway 10. This is where the prisoners were deposited, at the Broad Street overpass—delivered not to safety, but to heartless and brutal guards. They were made to sit, for hours, for days—sitting cross-legged, back-to-back. They were not allowed to move at all. Prisoners were assaulted if they tried to stand up to relieve themselves. One man said, “I was maced several times because I either wanted to stretch my sore and numb limbs or because I need to use the bathroom.”

Even a deputy admitted, “[There were] some instances where pepper spray was used when it could have been avoided… When the inmates were getting pepper sprayed, the only things they were asking for was food or water. They wasn’t getting hostile or whatever. But when they got loud, they got pepper sprayed.”

Quantonio Williams told the ACLU, “We were put in rows. The rows in front had floodwater coming up to them. The staff who took us told us that we would be given food and water. Although we saw lots of food and bottled water around, we were not given any. We saw the correctional officers drinking the water… Lots of people were passing out in the sun. The only way we could keep from burning up was to wet our shirts in the floodwater. We sat out in the direct sun all day without food or water… all the people who had passed out were just left out in the sun to the side and not transported. One man in the section started acting out, and the correctional officer just sprayed all the people in the area, including me. I got mace all over my back.”

Dozens of prisoners interviewed by the ACLU talked about how officers used taser guns on people who were just stretching or asking for help. One man said he saw someone “get bitten by a dog because he had to use the bathroom and ‘stood up’ when we were ‘told’ to stay sitting in the sun on that ‘hot’ concrete… The guard couldn’t get the dog to release [his] leg for about 5 minutes.” Another prisoner said, “I saw guards ‘march’ an inmate past me with Taser Wires attached to his back. At no point were we given food or water, and we spent the entire day sitting directly in the sun, at gunpoint.”

Woman prisoners, in particular, were subjected to sadistic guards. One female prisoner recalled, “[They] made us urinate and make bowel movements in our clothes where we sat. It was inhumane, humiliating and also degrading. I and other females were on our menstruation and had no sanitary napkins to change our old ones. We wore what we had on for 3 days. Some of us had menstrual blood all over us. The S.I.D. [Special Investigation Division] and Swat team called us ‘crackheads,’ ‘whore,’ ‘bitches’ and all sorts of other names.”

Three and Three Dozen. The inhumane evacuation of people from OPP took three days. And the prisoners were then put on buses—to eventually end up at over three dozen different Louisiana state prison facilities. The ACLU report contains many stories of the brutality that continued, and even intensified, as guards seemed to single out the OPP prisoners for even more (than the usual) racist and sadistic treatment.

A 17-year-old prisoner who was taken to the Bossier Parish Maximum Security Jail said, “We were being maced and having racial remarks told to us by several guards. I was only there for about two weeks and I was maced six times. They feed us small portions of food, barely enough to live on.”

Timothy Ordon said an officer beat him up, then whispered in his ear “lil nigger boy, you know where the fuck you at, we don’t play that shit out here, you ain’t in New Orleans,” started hitting him some more, and then dragged him into a cell by his feet.

Tyrone Lewis was a musician who wrote many popular songs. Some of them had been performed and recorded by the Neville Brothers. When he was booked into OPP in July 2004, he told the prison staff that he had been hit in the chest before his arrest and that he was afraid that his may have dislodged his pacemaker-defibrillator. But Lewis was never given any medical attention. After being evacuated, he continued to complain to prison deputies that he was having chest pains. According to the ACLU report, the only response he got was: “Fuck you nigger, we’re not doing shit for you niggers from New Orleans.” His condition deteriorated after being evacuated and he was finally admitted to a hospital in Monroe, Louisiana on September 14. He died 3 days later. His death certificate stated that complications with his pacemaker-defibrillator played a role in his death.

One prisoner sent to Bossier said his release date was September 9. He said, “I told one of the guards that my release date had passed and asked if there was anything I could do to get out of here. He blew up on me and started cursing me out. I started cursing him back and that was when he pepper sprayed me through the food slot in my cell… The guard later came back with a whole crowd of guards, including a big bald-head white guy who seemed to tell all of the other guards what to do. From outside the cell they told the dude in the cell with me that when they opened the cell he should come out. I could see that they were pointing a red light from a Taser at me and when I saw that I knew they were going to come in and beat me up. I got on my knees with my hands on my head to show them I wasn’t going to cause any problems. They walked in the cell and the big guy shot me with the Taser. When he stopped shocking me, the other guards all jumped on me and put handcuffs and leg shackles on me. Then they started beating me. Those wires from the Taser were still stuck in me, one in my chest and one in my stomach, so when he told them to get off me he started shocking me again, saying shit like, ‘you like that, you like that!’ He did that three times, where he would shock me and then let them beat me up and then start shocking me again. I blacked out and woke up alone in a cell with no clothes on at all. There was a rack for the bed, but there was no mattress. The only thing in the cell was the rack, a toilet and toilet paper. They were saying things to me like, ‘You New Orleans niggers think you so bad.’ They also said, ‘You are all animals. I’m gonna put you in the woods with the animals.’ They called New Orleans ‘Thug City.’ I’m American Indian, but my skin’s brown, so I guess they thought I was black.”

A prisoner taken to Quachita Parish Correctional Center wrote: “ I have been beat, tazed, maced, sprayed with pepper, bean bagged, spit on, almost bitten by a dog several times, cursed out, called niggers, monkeys, animals and other racist slurs. I have been deprived of all my privileges and some of my rights, put in rubber rooms, stripped naked and sprayed down with pepper… They think all of us in here are killers and they tell us, since we kill people and think we can get away with it then they can treat us any way they want and get away with it. That nobody gives a damn about us and we all are gonna die here and they’re gonna bury us out back where their parents used to bury our parents. Now you know they’re talking about slavery and if that’s not discrimination I don’t know what that is.”

Next: Part 3: Dungeon “Justice” and Slave Labor

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