Doing “Katrina Time”—Torture in New
Part 3: Dungeon “Justice” and Slave Labor
#66, October 22, 2006
This series is based on a 141-page report,
& 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
1 of this series, “Locked Cells in Rising Water,”
tells how prisoners were abandoned when Katrina hit and water
flooded into the prison, and recounts how deputies later came
back and used mace, tasers, batons, and shotguns against prisoners
who were struggling to survive. Part
2 is about how prisoners were evacuated under inhuman
and brutal conditions. And Part 3 tells the story of how thousands
of prisoners have been strewn about the state, left with no
legal representation, and how prison labor is an integral
part of the New Orleans prison system.
448 dollars. This
is how much Greg Davis owed in court fines. And this is why
he was in Orleans Parish Prison when Hurricane Katrina hit
on August 29, 2005. It was seven months later, in
March 2006, when he was released. And he got out only after
Tulane Law School students took on his case. When the students
first talked to Greg Davis, he didn’t have any idea why he
was still being held in prison.
Many other prisoners evacuated from OPP have
ended up spending months in prison on minor charges without
seeing a lawyer or appearing in court. It was like being thrown
in a dungeon—with no lawyer, no contact with the outside world,
no way to reach family, no way to get any kind of justice.
Many of these prisoners had not even been
found guilty of any crime. And when they finally had their
“day in court,” many had already served more time in prison
than they ever would have received had they been found guilty
of the crime they were charged with.
85 percent, 75 percent, 9 months.
85 percent of people arrested in New Orleans
are too poor to hire their own lawyers and need to be represented
by a public defender.
And how has the public defender’s office
been funded in New Orleans? Almost entirely from fees attached
to traffic fines.
So in the months after Katrina, with no revenue
from traffic violations, the public defender’s office lost
75% of its attorneys. This left thousands of New Orleans prisoners,
who were now in other facilities across the state, stranded
without any access at all to legal counsel.
From September 2005 until June 2006—for nine
months, there were no criminal trials in New Orleans. And
the court system in New Orleans is now backed up with some
6,000 cases. The makes the “right to a speedy trial” or even
the right to a hearing nothing but a cruel joke. Prisoners
evacuated after Katrina had to wait 9 or 10 months to appear
in court. They were stuck in prisons all around the state
and because there was no space in OPP, they were unable to
return to New Orleans, even if they had a scheduled court
The ACLU report “Abandoned and Abused” quotes
Calvin Johnson, Chief Judge of the Criminal District Court
in New Orleans. Talking about how they had a limited number
of jail spaces, he said, “We can’t fill them with people charged
with minor offenses, such as disturbing the peace, trespassing
or spitting on the sidewalk… I’m not exaggerating: There were
people in jail for spitting on the sidewalk.”
What this means is that thousands of people
were kept in horrendous prison conditions, locked away with
no access to a lawyer, with little or no contact with their
families—for as many as 10 months, for something as minor
as spitting on the sidewalk!
398 dollars. Pearl
Cornelia Bland’s story is profiled in the ACLU report. She
was arrested in August 2005 on a charge of possessing prohibited
drug paraphernalia. When she was arraigned on August 11 she
plead guilty as charged, and the judge ordered that she be
released on August 12 for placement in the intensive drug
rehabilitation program. The judge waived fines and fees for
Pearl Bland because she was indigent. But she was not released.
Why? Because she owed $398 in fines and fees from an old conviction.
Along with thousands of others, Pearl Bland
was evacuated after Hurricane Katrina. In June 2006 she contacted
the ACLU from the prison she had been evacuated to in Avoyelles
Parish. At that point she had spent more than 10 months in
jail for her failure to pay $398 in outstanding fines and
fees. Finally, on June 28, 2006, an attorney from the Tulane
Law Clinic appeared in court on her behalf and obtained a
22 dollars and 39 cents. The
city of New Orleans pays the Sheriff’s office $22.39 per day
for each local prisoner that OPP houses. Before Katrina this
came to about $100,000 a day. For each state prisoner housed
at the jail, the state pays the city $24.39. And the city
gets an additional minimum of $7.00 per day for each state
prisoner who requires mental health care. For federal prisoners,
including immigration detainees, the city can get nearly twice
This “business side of incarceration” is
reflected in the way the Orleans Parish Criminal Sheriffs
discuss the trafficking of prisoners.
Speaking of the period between 2000 and 2002,
when the number of state prisoners housed at OPP dropped,
then-Sheriff Foti said, “If you were in the stock market you
would call this a slow-growth period.” And commenting on the
fact that the amount of money received for housing federal
prisoners was a lot higher than what they got from state or
local prisoners, Foti commented that he “wished there were
more high-profit prisoners.”
The Sheriff who came after Foti, Bill Hunter,
said that “fewer inmates translates into less revenue for
the jail.” And, as the ACLU report points out, “In fact, when
the Sheriff’s office requests payment from New Orleans for
housing city prisoners, the ‘invoice’ refers to prisoners
as units and lists a ‘Unit Price’ of $22.39 per day.”
Prison labor has been another side of the business of incarceration
at OPP. The Times-Picayune has reported on how private
citizens and companies can hire prisoners to perform work
at minimum wages. And from these wages the sheriff’s office
can deduct living expenses, travel expenses, support costs
of the prisoners’ dependents, and payment of the prisoners’
debts. Any remaining money, if there is any, goes to the prisoner.
As prisoners who had been evacuated after
Katrina began to return to New Orleans, OPP quickly got back
into the business of hiring out prison labor.
According to the ACLU report, OPP recently
built an aquaculture facility—run entirely by prison labor.
This is being used to raise about 600,000 to 700,000 pounds
of tilapia fish per year.
When running for office in 2003, Sheriff
Marlin Gusman had promised just this kind of profit making
off of prisoners. He told the League of Women Voters, “I will
work with the city administration to reduce the burden on
the general fund and provide more prisoner labor to augment
So, after Hurricane Katrina, after the whole
way that thousands of prisoners were abandoned and locked
up with rising floodwaters, after the whole way they were
brutalized and then cruelly evacuated and denied their rights—after
all this, now as they are being returned to New Orleans, prison
officials are accelerating the exploitation of their labor.
Sheriff Gusman promised to make the prisoners
at OPP—the majority of whom have not even been convicted,
or have been convicted on very minor offenses—available to
be work crews for the cleanup and revival of the city.
This hearkens back to another period of rebuilding
and betrayal in the South.
The ACLU report points out, “This use of
prisoners amounts to modern slavery—or a throwback to the
notoriously racist convict-lease and state-use prison labor
systems that proliferated in the South after Reconstruction.”
This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolution
Write: Box 3486, Merchandise Mart, Chicago, IL 60654
Phone: 773-227-4066 Fax: 773-227-4497