On Thursday night, I volunteered in a project to identify prisoners who had been in Orleans Parish Prison before Hurricane Katrina and were then evacuated to a federal penitentiary in Coleman, Florida. Angela Wessels, an attorney in Boston, who works for the Southern Center for Human Rights (based in Atlanta), is doing an amazing job overseeing the process of gathering volunteers—mostly local law students and her friends—to slog through the roughly 8,500 names on the "Hurricane Katrina Master Listing" and create a database of the inmates who were evacuated to Coleman.
OPP is the facility that includes Templeman III, the unit that was abandoned by prison guards with prisoners locked inside, while flood waters rose to chest level. For four days prisoners were trapped inside without food or drinking water. Orleans Parish Prison is both a jail where arrestees are kept pre-trial and a prison where sentenced convicts reside.*
Phyllis Mann explains:
There are lawyers all over the state, criminal defense lawyers, who are going to all of these facilities. There are 35 facilities that we are aware of all over the State of Louisiana, where over 8,500 people from Orleans jails were evacuated. And we're literally having to go in and meet with these people one by one to figure out when they got arrested, why they were in jail, whether they have been convicted or whether they were waiting for trial, whether it was a misdemeanor or a felony.
I understand that the computers from the Orleans Parish Criminal Sheriff's Office were retrieved from Orleans on Friday, and their information technology people have been working to try to get as much information off of those computers as possible. And eventually what will happen is they're going to start matching the information they can recover from those computers to the information that we have been getting by going in and interviewing these people one by one, so that we can figure out where they're supposed to be. I would say a good half of them are not supposed to be in jail at all. They have served whatever sentence they had received and should be released. But until we can figure that out, they're sitting there. (Emphasis added.)
While there is small number of local New Orleans attorneys doing the herculean work of identifying and visiting individually every OPP prisoner evacuated to other facilities in Louisiana, there hasn't been adequate information for anyone to address the situations of the prisoners who were evacuated out of state.
Of the approximately 8,500 prisoners who were in OPP, about 900 were sent to Coleman Penitentiary. Working with the Master Listing and a very recently obtained list of the names of prisoners who had been evacuated to Coleman, volunteers have been identifying the inmates in Coleman who should have an arraignment, bond hearing, access to a lawyer, be in rehab or work-release programs, or have past or imminent release dates. Last Wednesday and Thursday nights, rooms full of volunteers entered the data on these inmates into spreadsheets to create a database of the prisoners in Coleman whom attorneys could help in an immediate way. This was the work that I was doing on Thursday. Once this new database is complete, attorneys who can go to Coleman Penitentiary will have the information they need about who is there and whom they can help.
At one point, while I was going through my hunk of pages from the Katrina Master Listing, there was something odd. I noticed that for one of the prisoners I was entering into the spreadsheet the booking date was later than his sentencing date, which didn't make sense to me. I asked Angela about it. She explained the funny dates mean the inmate had completed a sentence at another prison and was transported to Orleans Parish Prison just prior to his release. Now instead of being on queue to re-enter civilian life, this person has been shipped to a federal penitentiary in Florida, without access to an attorney or the ability to communicate with anyone to tell them where he is or even just to let family members know he is alive. And that's just one story out of roughly 900 that there are to be told about the Orleans Parish Prisoners who were evacuated to Coleman Penitentiary in Florida.
*Previously I confessed some confusion about whether OPP only functioned as a jail or if it functioned both as a jail and as a prison. Based on my work Thursday night, it is evident that the latter is indeed the case.
UPDATE, 10/24: Now that I have her permission to include it, I've added Angela Wessel's name. Adding her name to the sentence in the first paragraph forced me to remove the mention of my having met Angela through the Prison Policy Initiative.
Also see: More On The Coleman 900