Incarcerated people evacuated to the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola confronted “unacceptable conditions” after Hurricane Ida hit Louisiana, says a letter sent to Gov. John Bel Edwards by advocates relaying the experiences of incarcerated people. The letter describes “dirty and unsafe facilities”; “pepper spraying and needless brutality” from guards; and a lack of access to showers, medications, and phones. Covid-19 protocols were not followed during the evacuations.
The letter, sent by the Promise of Justice Initiative and co-signed by nine other organizations, follows up on a September 3 missive and comes after a summer of climate-driven disasters, including wildfires, extreme heat, and floods. It’s a signal that state, county, and federal officials responsible for thousands of incarcerated people across the U.S. are not prepared for effects of the climate crisis that scientists say will deepen over the coming decades.
“It is imperative that the state have plans in place for the safe, humane, transparent, and efficient evacuation of our incarcerated community members during these dangerous times.”
“As noted in our previous letter, hurricanes and other devastating weather events in this region are not unexpected,” the letter says. “It is imperative that the state have plans in place for the safe, humane, transparent, and efficient evacuation of our incarcerated community members during these dangerous times.”
Ken Pastorick, communications director for the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections, denied the reports laid out in the letter. “The Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections (DPS&C) is proud of the professional support it provided the local sheriff’s jails and facilities leading up to, during, and after Hurricane Ida,” he said in an email. “The allegations being made are filled with many falsehoods. During their time at Louisiana State Penitentiary, the prison received no complaints from Orleans Parish inmates and staff.”
Because incarcerated people are often confined in aging facilities and are unable to make decisions about how to respond to climate disasters, they are among the most vulnerable to the impacts of the climate crisis. States and counties often struggle to safely and humanely evacuate large populations of incarcerated people, who are viewed as security threats. The Covid-19 pandemic has only made things worse, with evacuations entailing the movement of a large number of people to new congregate settings.
When disasters strike prisons, another common issue is a lack of transparency. The September 3 letter, a series of questions sent to the governor, asked why some facilities in mandatory evacuations zones didn’t evacuate; what systems were in place for family members to locate and communicate with their incarcerated loved ones; and how hurricane-hit facilities would be evaluated for safety prior to return.
The advocates say that they have not received an official response yet, besides piecemeal reassurances from the state that Covid-19 protocols have been followed and incarcerated people at state facilities would have access to phones, and from St. Charles Parish officials that conditions at an un-evacuated jail remained normal. The letter says the reassurances from officials don’t line up with what advocates have heard from at least 12 incarcerated people, whose experiences the advocates described.
When Hurricane Ida hit, many southern Louisiana communities enacted mandatory evacuations in the face of forecasts not seen since Hurricane Katrina, exactly 16 years ago. The decision to evacuate parish jails and prisons — or not — fell to the parishes, the term used for counties in Louisiana. Some parishes in the path of the storm, including Lafourche and St. Charles, left a total of nearly 1,000 incarcerated people in place as they mandated that community members leave. For the 2,700 or so incarcerated people who were evacuated from various facilities, many landed at other local jails, while approximately 800 from Orleans Parish were evacuated to the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, and housed in facilities separate from the general population.
There, the letter states, Covid-19 protocols were not followed. “People report having to sleep on mattresses on the floor of a gym, with no social distancing and no masks. Hundreds of people were crammed into the gym head-to-toe so that ‘if you rolled over, you’d roll onto someone else’s mattress,’” the advocates wrote, referring to the account of an incarcerated person.
The letter continues, “There were birds living in the gym, and the floor was covered in bird feces, spiders, insects, standing water, and trash. By the end of the evacuation, the evacuees’ sheets were filthy.” Several people interviewed by the letter’s authors said they were unable to shower for several days and, for many, 10 days passed before they could change their clothes.
“In one place, there were only two toilets and one urinal available for use—and no toilet paper—for at least 150 individuals.”
In some areas, conditions were particularly unsanitary: “In one place, there were only two toilets and one urinal available for use—and no toilet paper—for at least 150 individuals.”
Louisiana’s heat compounded the impact of the storm. Fans blew over the incarcerated people, but there was no air conditioning, driving some people to heat exhaustion, the letter said. Sufficient drinks were not provided to detainees. Some were unable to access medication, including a man who “was without his psychological medication for a couple days and did not have his blood pressure medication for the first six days.”
The conditions led to fights and harsh responses from guards. The letter described at least four reports of pepper spray being used on the evacuees, “including one man who has asthma and who was positive for COVID-19.” Disciplinary action meant corrections officers sending some inmates to Camp J, an area that has also been used for Covid-19 quarantine. A lack of access to phones, for calling loved ones and attorneys, was pervasive.
Pastorick, the spokesperson, denied the letter’s description of poor conditions. He said that housing areas were cleaned, Covid-19 precautions were taken, and detainees from Orleans Parish who tested positive were housed in a Camp J facility designated for medical isolation. He confirmed that people were also sent to Camp J for disciplinary purposes but said they were placed in designated nonmedical areas and the parish provided security. Pastorick also said coolers of ice and water were provided, there were plenty of showers and toilets, and the state prison provided jumpsuits and a laundry service, so that people would have clean clothing.
He said medication was administered according to orders from the Orleans Parish medical staff on hand to support the evacuees. Louisiana State Penitentiary’s pharmacy provided any medication Orleans Parish personnel lacked. “LSP medical staff was available to provide all emergent care that may be needed during the evacuation period,” he said.
Phone lines, Pastorick said, were set up by the second day of evacuation, though service was sporadic due to the impacts of the hurricane across Louisiana. He said, “This had a direct impact on the ability to communicate with relatives.”
Days passed before many family members heard anything about where their loved one ended up or whether they were safe. The situation conjured memories of Hurricane Katrina, when adults and youth incarcerated at the Orleans Parish Prison faced chest-high water after the sheriff decided not to evacuate.
Among those lacking information about the whereabouts of their loved ones were parents of incarcerated youths. The state had notified many parents that their kids had been evacuated but didn’t tell them where. Only after the storm did they learn that 36 youth were evacuated from the New Orleans Juvenile Justice Intervention Center to an adult facility, the Elayn Hunt Correctional Center. Although the youth were kept in a building separate from the adults, advocates have questioned whether the evacuation violates a Louisiana law that states, “No child subject to the jurisdiction of the juvenile court shall be held in adult jail or lockup.”
Pastorick told The Intercept that the juvenile detention center and the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections have had an emergency evacuation agreement in place since 2018 and that the juvenile detention center exhausted other housing possibilities before requesting support from the state. “Staff were in constant communication with the families and attorneys prior to the transport to the Elayn Hunt Correctional Center on Aug. 27, during their stay, and upon return on Sept. 1.” He added, “The location was initially undisclosed as a matter of safety protocols.”
“He said call his lawyer because conditions are really bad.”
For family members of adults who did not evacuate, the lack of access to communication deepened anxiety about the conditions inside hurricane-struck facilities. When Ida hit, Alesiá Richards’s husband was awaiting trial as a federal inmate at the Nelson Coleman Correctional Center in St. Charles Parish. Typically, Richards is able to communicate with her husband over the phone throughout the day. However, after the storm, 11 days passed before she heard any news of her husband. Finally, on September 9, she got what she estimates to be a two-minute call from him. “He said call his lawyer because conditions are really bad,” she recalled.
Since then, Richards said she’s heard from her husband, from his attorney, and from the attorney of a family member who is also incarcerated there that the facility was operating on generator power and lacked air conditioning, the roof appeared to be leaking, and no more than one hot meal was distributed per day. When she got another two-minute call from her husband on September 17, he told her that the lights were back on, but they weren’t expecting phones to be working until the end of the month. Sadadra Davis, whose partner is at the same facility, said she’d also heard from him that the ceiling was leaking, the air conditioning was minimal, and they were not getting enough food to feel full.
St. Charles Parish Sheriff Greg Champagne told The Intercept that the claims laid out in the letter, which echo some of Richards’s and Davis’s concerns, were “mostly false,” adding that the jail was built in 2003 to withstand a Category 5 storm. “The facility was never at any time without power after the storm passed,” he said, adding that they were never without air conditioning and lights. “We had some spots mostly at the skylights where small leaks developed which were quickly mopped up.”
He continued, “It is my belief that certain inmates are attempting to manipulate the situation by also spreading false and greatly exaggerated information.” Champagne said the only service that was cut was landline phone service and that officials were providing cellphones to incarcerated people for short calls home.
By now, incarcerated evacuees across Louisiana have largely been sent back to their original facilities. Only the Terrebonne Parish Jail has been deemed still too damaged for return, said Pastorick. For family members of people who were never evacuated, though, communications problems and uncertainty persist.
Richards believes her husband should have been moved when the mandatory evacuation was put in place for the surrounding community. On top of her worry over the conditions, the loss of contact has heightened anxiety throughout her own evacuation and return to a damaged home. “It took something from me,” she said. “I deal with anxiety myself, and he’s my way of being calm.”