Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Today's column

The Shreveport Times website is a bit lethargic this morning. My column for today is copied below

Emily Metzgar: Concern grows about prison evacuation efforts October 12, 2005 State media really hasn't noticed and Louisiana's political establishment doesn't particularly want it highlighted, but there's growing concern about alleged events at Orleans Parish Prison as Hurricane Katrina came ashore. And yet, there's been more attention devoted to the plight of missing, displaced or stranded Louisiana pets than there has been to the plight of prisoners. Human beings, even incarcerated, deserve more respect. Late last month, Human Rights Watch accused Orleans Parish Prison corrections officers of abandoning hundreds of prisoners as Katrina hit. According to HRW, in Templeman III, one of the three buildings comprising one of the nation's largest prison complexes, "As of Aug. 29, there were no correctional officers in the building, which held more than 600 inmates. These inmates, including some who were locked in ground-floor cells, were not evacuated until Thursday, Sept. 1, four days after flood waters in the jail had reached chest-level." Television images of prisoners, clad in orange jumpsuits, shackled at the ankles, and standing in water at the end of a submerged interstate entrance ramp were disturbing. It took news commentators time to digest what they saw. "These men are all in uniform," observed one broadcaster speculating about from where they had come and for what purpose. But the images were no mystery to anyone who drives Louisiana's highways and sees men in the same "uniforms" gathering trash. They were prisoners and there was no telling where they'd been since the storm and flooding. HRW says, "Some inmates from Templeman III have said they saw bodies floating in the floodwaters as they were evacuated." HRW also notes several corrections officers acknowledged there was no evacuation plan for the prison. Asked about the possible fate of the prisoners, one officer said, "Ain't no tellin' what happened to those people." Indeed. According to the statement from Human Rights Watch, as of late September, there were at least 130 prisoners from Templeman III that still were unaccounted for, despite state Department of Corrections statements that all prisoners were evacuated. Last week, Florida's St. Petersburg Times reported Orleans Sheriff Marlin Gussman's response to Human Rights Watch's statements about the prison and the treatment of the prisoners: "They're in jail, man. They lie." They better be lying. All of them, from those held for murder to those detained for public drunkenness on Katrina Eve. But the state's track record on prisoners isn't encouraging. Louisiana has America's highest prisoner incarceration rate without accompanying rates of crime. The indigent defense system has been nationally condemned. The state's death row exoneration rate is the nation's second-highest. The system demonstrably is broken but the state lacks the political will to fix it. Last month, when Louisiana Corrections Secretary Richard Stalder spoke about evacuated inmates he said "Some have assured me they will never be late on child support payments again." But if Human Rights Watch is right about what happened at Templeman III, some prisoners may not have survived to make those payments at all. Emily Metzgar is a Shreveport-based freelance writer. Write to her in care of The Times, P.O. Box 30222, Shreveport, LA 71130-0222. E-mail to shreveportopinion@gannett.com