Wednesday, November 09, 2005

U.S. Consitution still in effect

My column today comments on HB 28 currently under consideration in the Louisiana legislature. The bill calls for limiting “liability of law enforcement agencies to prison detainees during emergencies and disasters.” The bill was passed out of committee on Tuesday morning with little discussion, although an amendment limiting language to ensure it applies only to Katrina and Rita-related events was added. But that amendment does little to address the most serious problem with the bill: It looks very much like an effort by some of the state's most entrenched interests to excuse what appear to have been serious human rights violations. The Shreveport Times website is slow this morning. Complete text of the column is copied below:

Louisiana’s special session is underway and one of Governor Blanco’s 77 action items demands immediate attention. She called for limiting “liability of law enforcement agencies to prison detainees during emergencies and disasters.” The legislature has complied and proposed House Bill 28. Given hurricane-induced upheaval, some disruption in due process was inevitable. While the bill may be intended to protect law enforcement agencies across the state who, in good faith, accepted evacuated prisoners without adequate information to make decisions about release, as written HB 28 could also exempt law enforcement from liability for mistreatment of prisoners during and after Katrina. Setting aside concerns about the bill’s retroactive nature, it could also excuse behavior qualifying as human rights abuse. Consider the following: The Louisiana Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers reports that at Hunt Correctional Facility, to which 8000 prisoners were evacuated, “inmates were placed on a football or soccer field… The field had no toilet facilities, there was no shelter from the sun… The field became a pit, and the guards began simply throwing sandwiches over the fence to the inmates…” Three days later, a bus finally moving some inmates from Hunt to the Jena Correctional Facility was in a wreck when the driver fell asleep “and hit an electrical pole, throwing men all over… [they] were shackled… with the backs of their hands [cuffed] together… they had no way to protect themselves in the wreck.” The bus behind them, also filled with prisoners, “kept going and ran straight into a live electrical light, which caused electrical shocks to the passengers.” Once at Jena, the prisoners were reportedly subjected to physical and psychological assault. The New York Times reported on more than two dozen complaints of “beatings, racial slurs and sexual taunts.” Then the Los Angeles Times referred to lawyers who “said the inmates told of being beaten, subjected to racial invective, having their heads rubbed in mace and vomit, and being taunted by guards...” The Jena facility closed soon after these reports surfaced in national media. And these details still don’t address reports of fatalities among prisoners before their evacuation from the storm zone. There’s been no official confirmation of mistreatment, but the governor’s request for immunity could be actually interpreted as tacit admission of wrongdoing. Consider the context: Louisiana has the nation’s highest per capita incarceration rate without the accompanying high rates of crime. The state’s indigent defense system is notoriously dysfunctional. And now the state wants to be relieved of responsibility for protecting prisoners in its custody when disaster strikes. There’s something horribly wrong with this picture. Fortunately Louisiana can’t exempt itself from the due process and equal protection obligations of the U.S. Constitution. So while the state may indeed succeed in declaring itself not liable for treatment of prison detainees before, during or after a disaster, such immunity isn’t likely to hold up should federal investigations into post-Katrina events ensue. Should such investigations materialize, Louisiana’s greatest public relations disaster may be yet to come.