Last week I posted excerpts from the Human Rights Watch press release which revealed an appalling story of hundreds of prisoners in the Templeman III facility of Orleans Parish Prison who were simply left in their locked cells as water flooded in. All prison guards and staff had evacuated the facility while prisoners remained locked inside, water rising to chest level on the ground floor. For four days, those who did not manage to escape were trapped without food or water, with toilets backing up and no ventilation save for where they were able to break windows. Prisoners reported seeing bodies floating in the water while they struggled to survive. What is more, there are still 517 prisoners from the prison who are unaccounted for.
Though part of Orleans Parish Prison, Templeman III is, in function, a jail.
Many of the men held at jail had been arrested for offenses like criminal trespass, public drunkenness or disorderly conduct. Many had not even been brought before a judge and charged, much less been convicted.
One of the worst human rights violations in the catalog of horrendous human rights violations suffered by the hurricane victims from New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, the story has garnered very little attention from any corner of the press. In today's New York Times, a full week since the HRW press release, there was a 350 word editorial. A handful of newspapers ran items based on the HRW press release.
Democracy Now! is the only media outlet that has actually taken the HRW press release and developed some extended coverage of the story. The Democracy Now! item reveals that the story of Templeman III is even worse than the HRW press release might suggest.
DN!'s Amy Goodman interviewed Corrine Carrey, the HRW researcher who did the initial investigation, Dan Bright, who had been detained in the Orleans Parish Prison the night before Katrina struck, and two attorneys, Phyllis Mann and Neal Walker.
Dan Bright was one of the lucky prisoners who managed to escape from his cell, by spending hours kicking at the door to knock it off its hinges, and attempted to help others before he finally got out of the prison. The first shocker is that there were deputies on hand, outside the prison, doing nothing to help the prisoners inside:
DAN BRIGHT: When we got out, they had maybe like ten deputies outside the building with boats.
AMY GOODMAN: They had deputies outside the building but none of the deputies inside the building to help you?
DAN BRIGHT: None. It was like, if you get out, you get out. It's not too bad. So when we got out, they took us to a bridge, what’s called an overpass bridge, and they just put us on these boats, brought us to this bridge and left us there for maybe like three days without food or water or anything. They just left us there.
Bright also claims they deputies were stealing the prisoners' property:
AMY GOODMAN: So, what did they say, when you said there are men still in there?
DAN BRIGHT: They didn't say anything. These -- most of the deputies had, you know, just was gone. They didn't even bother to try to help us. And not only that, they had – these same deputies were stealing property, our personal property. My daughter was trying to telephone me and find out where I was at, and a deputy answered my phone.
AMY GOODMAN: Your daughter called, and the deputy answered your cell phone?
DAN BRIGHT: Correct.
AMY GOODMAN: Did you ever get your personal property back?
DAN BRIGHT: No.
AMY GOODMAN: Did any of the men?
DAN BRIGHT: No, ma'am.
HRW researcher Corrine Carey explains that the Orleans Parish Prison evacuation plan has not been available in the aftermath of Katrina:
CORRINE CAREY: We have not been able to find the evacuation plan. We heard reports that the evacuation plan was on a website. A Department of Corrections spokesperson told us that it was on the website, but it has since been removed. So we actually, though we have made inquiries, don't know what the evacuation plan was. In any event, the Orleans Parish sheriff didn’t follow any evacuation plan, nor did he fortify the institution to allow people to ride out the storm with food, water and other supplies.
Thus in other of the Orleans Parish Prison facilities, you had stories of chaos and mayhem as prisoners and guards weathered Katrina together, while they waited to be rescued. (Given the information now available from Human Rights Watch and Democracy Now!, I take rosy outcome, reported in the Times Picayune story, linked in my last sentence, with a grain of salt.)
Meanwhile, prior to Katrina, 2,000 prisoners from other New Orleans area prisons were evacuated to Orleans Parish Prison.
CORRINE CAREY: . . . you had a prison that was already at capacity, and then you had maybe 2,000 more prisoners from area prisons brought in. So, that's why when you hear Dan Bright talking about breaking out of cells, there were prisoners in common areas. They were in recreational areas, they were in visiting areas. So they were not locked down, and they were able to grab pipes and break them in the absence of guards and help the other inmates break out of their cells and break the windows.
The horrors did not end for prisoners who managed to get out Templeman III and make it to the central lockup facility from where prisoners and guards were, in fact, being evacuated.
AMY GOODMAN: So you broke out on Tuesday?
DAN BRIGHT: Right. After the storm had passed. And when we got out to central lockup area, back to the central lockup area, these were the other guards waiting for us outside with the boats. So they took us from central lockup area to the bridge. It was nighttime. The city was completely dark. We stood on the bridge until maybe like two days, two-and-a-half days.
AMY GOODMAN: Two-and-a-half days.
DAN BRIGHT: Yeah. No food, no water. We couldn't stand up. They made us sit down. We couldn't even get up and urinate. We had to urinate on ourselves. They didn't even want us standing up.
AMY GOODMAN: You said you urinated on yourselves because you couldn’t stand. Were you chained?
DAN BRIGHT: Excuse me?
AMY GOODMAN: Were you chained?
DAN BRIGHT: No. They didn't have any chains. They didn't have anything. They were just rushing us -- as we broke out and thought we were trying to get to our families or whatever. We weren't trying to escape. We were just trying to get away from that prison. When we got out, they snatch us, put us on airboats and bring us to the bridge.
AMY GOODMAN: So you stayed there for two days, no food. Water?
DAN BRIGHT: No water. No food. They had water. But they wasn't giving us any.
AMY GOODMAN: And how many of you were there?
DAN BRIGHT: It was a lot. I would say maybe like -- I couldn't tell. It was over 400. It was a lot of us.
AMY GOODMAN: And then after those two days, what was it? Thursday or Friday?
DAN BRIGHT: It was Thursday when they moved us. They put us on the buses. And they brought us to this place, another jail called Hunt’s Correctional Center.
AMY GOODMAN: Near Baton Rouge.
DAN BRIGHT: Right. And they just put all of us in this one huge gate and made us sit on a field. And they left us there.
AMY GOODMAN: Sitting on the field?
DAN BRIGHT: Right. You had to sleep on the wet grass. They didn't have anywhere we could urinate or defecate. We had to do that out in the public. You know. They gave us one blanket. We had -- that was it. You had to sleep on the wet grass. You had -- we didn't have hot food. We didn't have cold water. In fact, they come once a day and throw peanut butter sandwiches over the gate. They wouldn't even come in the gate. They would just throw it over the gate.
AMY GOODMAN: They threw the sandwiches at you.
DAN BRIGHT: Correct. They were throwing them over the gate.
AMY GOODMAN: And then you would race for them.
DAN BRIGHT: Right, we would fight over sandwiches. You know, it wasn't -- there wasn't any order in this yard. In fact, you had -- the entire prison system was in there. You had guys with life sentences. You know, all kind of guys that wasn't supposed to be around one another. You had federal prisoners in there. They even had this guy Len Davis in there.
AMY GOODMAN: Who is Len Davis?
DAN BRIGHT: He was convicted -- he was a cop. He was an NOPD police officer, convicted for all the murder of a female. He was on death row.
AMY GOODMAN: He was a New Orleans Police officer on death row, and he was in there in the field with you?
DAN BRIGHT: Right. He was back down here trying to get some time back, and he got caught up when the storm came. So they drove him in there, too.
Attorney Neal Walker has interviewed scores of prisoners from New Orleans Parish Prison and Attorney Phyllis Mann has interviewed or overseen interviews of thousands of the prisoners since September 4. Both say that the prisoners' stories are remarkably consistent with what Dan Bright has recounted on Democracy Now! Here's Phyllis Mann:
I have personally interviewed or overseen the interviewing of over 2,400 men and women between September 7 and as late as last night. And these are men and women who were at the various facilities in Orleans and the others, as Corinne referred to, that were brought to Orleans from other affected parishes. These people didn't have a chance to talk to each other.
Like Dan describes, it was complete pandemonium in Orleans. As people got out of the various buildings that comprised the Orleans Parish complex there, you know, some of them spent one day on the bridge, some of them spent three days on the bridge. From there, they were randomly loaded into buses, and there was no rhyme nor reason as to who got on what bus. And they -- most of them went through Hunt Correctional and spent time on that football or soccer field or whatever it was. Some of them were there for two or three days. I saw large numbers of people who were badly, badly sunburned as a result of being out in the elements at Hunt Correctional while they waited.
And then these people again randomly got distributed to in excess of 35 facilities throughout the state, and some of them are prisons, some of them are private prisons. Many, many of them are parish jails operated by local sheriffs in each parish. And as I have gone from place to place and talked to different people who had been held, they are all telling remarkably consistent stories. And many of these people have not even seen television at the point that I have talked with them. You know, it would be a week or two weeks after the hurricane, and they still had not been able to watch television to know what had happened there. So, for all of these people to tell such remarkably consistent stories, to me, is a very serious indication of the truth of what they're saying.
Human Rights Watch is asking the US Department of Justice to conduct an investigation. It is crucial for more of the press to do the job of investigating and reporting on this story to help make sure the DOJ does its job.
UPDATE: Jeanne D'Arc has done some very interesting forensics on the news coverage of this story. Also, a slight clarification, thanks to a passage from the DN! transcript, which Jeanne, quoted. According to Neal Walker, all of Orleans Parish Prison, not just Templeman III, is a jail, despite what the name suggests. I was confused because Dan Bright had reported that after he was transferred to Hunt's Correctional Center, he shared open air accommodations in a field with convicted criminals, including a murderer on death row. These other prisoners must have been evacuated to Hunt's CC from other prisons.