Prisoners of Katrina Airs Sunday...in Great Britain

It's too bad American media doesn't care enough to make this kind of documentary. Cheers to the BBC who Sunday night will be airing Prisoners of Katrina at 2200 BST on BBC Two.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, while thousands fled New Orleans, the city's prisoners were trapped. Fresh eye-witness accounts reveal what really happened to those left behind, and how crucial forensic evidence was simply washed away.

In September 2005, long after most people had fled a devastated city, inmates of Orleans Parish Prison - many of them shackled - were still waiting to be rescued from the blazing heat and the stinking floods.

One man, a chef jailed for an unpaid fine that should have at most netted a week's term, ended up spending 103 days in the jail, "abandoned without food, drink or sanitation as the waters rose."

"We were just left there to die," said Cardell Williams, a prisoner who spent two months in jail without ever being charged.

The decision to leave the prisoners behind was intentional:

In the days before the hurricane, when other citizens of New Orleans were ordered to leave, city leaders were asked: "What about the prisoners in the jail?"

"The prisoners will stay where they belong," replied Marlin Gusman, the criminal sheriff in charge of the city jail.

Most of those in the Orleans Parish Prison were there for minor offenses like unpaid fines and jaywalking. Some hadn't been charged. One third were charged but couldn't make bond and were waiting for their trials --still cloaked in innocence. After Katrina hit, violent offenders from other prisons were moved in with them.

The food and drinking water ran out. Many were in windowless cells in soaring heat. They began to riot.

Then it was determined they had to get the prisoners out:

They would have to be ferried by boats, six at a time. In the chaos some were left behind, forgotten, and some inmates reported seeing prisoners who had drowned. Andrew Joseph said he saw a body floating in the water with a rat sitting on its chest. There were reports too of other deaths.

A member of the prison staff made a sworn statement that he had removed two body-bags containing the bodies of female deputies who had died, asphyxiated by smoke from burning mattresses.

Because of Louisiana's quirky legal system, things got even worse for the prisoners:

Months after the hurricane many were still suffering the consequences of a system peculiar to Louisiana - that of funding public defence lawyers partly from traffic violations revenue. When the city flooded and the traffic stopped, the money ran out, depriving the poor of their legal rights to a defence. At one time, the city was reduced to just four defence lawyers, each with an unmanageable caseload.

It was even worse for those who had been convicted and were hoping DNA evidence not presented at trial could prove their innocence on appeal:

For those convicted of serious crimes and hoping for a reprieve, however, there were graver consequences still. Evidence tag among rubble Vital forensic evidence stored in a basement was destroyed Forensic evidence stored in the courthouse basement was destroyed, dashing hopes of justice for those wrongly convicted of rape and murder.

Bottom line:

New Orleans is notorious both for its low murder clear-up rate and its wrong convictions. But for those at the bottom of the social heap - the poorest prisoners in one of America's poorest states - Katrina brought a justice system already near to collapse, to a standstill.

If you get the BBC, I hope you will watch. Here's more on prisoners abandoned to Katrina:

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    TL. There would be little point in my taping the program and mailing it on. TV's operate at 625 lines so no good for over there. Let me see if I can get someone to record on dvd and send it down the tubes. No promisses but will do my best.

    Thanks, Oscar, that would be great and very appreciated.

    Update. It would appear that there are two regions, (dvd) one and two, obviously not compatable, but the recording can be saved as WMV format so shouldn't be any problem.

    I thought something was in the works with Nova or Frontline (a Bill Moyers project) on this very topic. Seems BBC (again) beat everyone to the punch.

    HBO will be running Spike Lee's documentary next week. Mr. Lee's reputation helped get his camera crew into the city's water-soaked homes, he said. It allowed him to stretch out a complex story, with themes of race, class and politics that, he said, have too often been sensationalized or rendered in sound bites. He received permission, for example, from Kimberly Polk to film the funeral of her 5-year-old daughter, Sarena Polk, swept away when the waters ravaged the Lower Ninth Ward. "She came to me in a dream," Ms. Polk says in the film. "She said, 'Mama, I'm falling.' "

    Re: Prisoners of Katrina Airs Sunday...in Great Br (none / 0) (#6)
    by Dadler on Sat Aug 12, 2006 at 12:43:27 PM EST
    As a nation, we lack the self-critical instinct to stomach realities such as this one. Too much insulation. Too much wasteful distraction. Too much shopping and consuming when sacrifice was/is in order. I seem to remember the President during Katrina was also the one during 9/11, in the aftermath of which we were implored by him -- like the narrow capitalist preacher he is -- to keep shopping, keep buying, keep consuming. If only it were cool to be passionate about politics and social justice and holding the mirror up to our own power. If only the President encouraged that kind of excercise of freedom with the same conviction he does the almighty dollar pitch.

    Re: Prisoners of Katrina Airs Sunday...in Great Br (none / 0) (#7)
    by Slado on Sat Aug 12, 2006 at 01:38:12 PM EST
    Dadler it is not the presidents fault that corupt jail officials left these inmates to die. It is the jailors fault and theirs alone. Also not all those working in the jail should be held with scorn. Some officials risked thier lives to save those of the inmates. This was an example of human weakness at its worst. As for Spike Lee lets see if he plays it straight but unfortunately I'm pretty sure it will be a Bush bashing session. One preview showed Mayor Nagin talking about the federal governemnt. As much blame as should be put on the federal goverment nothing compares to the local officials who completely bungled the evacuation, the preperation and the execution of the days leading up to, during and afer Katrina. I hope Mr. Lee deals even handidly with Mr. Nagin and the Governor of Louisiana. Why do I doubt that he will?

    Slado, why don't you just email him the RNC talking points so that you will be pleased with the program? Katrina exposed what's wrong with our society that far transcends petty partisan politics. It's sad that much of our geneal focus remains way too narrow to even see that.

    Re: Prisoners of Katrina Airs Sunday...in Great Br (none / 0) (#9)
    by roger on Sat Aug 12, 2006 at 08:43:00 PM EST
    Slado, Don't you think that FEMA was supposed to do something to help? Or do you believe that the local government, known for its honesty and profesionalism, could rationally be expected to handle things on their own? Based on your thoughts, why have a national government at all?

    Re: Prisoners of Katrina Airs Sunday...in Great Br (none / 0) (#10)
    by Dadler on Sun Aug 13, 2006 at 10:30:00 AM EST
    Slado, Come on, man, don't depress me with that leap of illogic about my point. (Right, I was blaming Bush for every specific incident; couldn't be I was making a point about the influence of leadership, or his pathetic lack thereof.) Criticize Nagin all you'd like, I don't think he'd say he was beyond it, nor do I think he is, but he certainly stood up to take the slings and arrows more than Bush did. And the difference is...Nagin was actually IN THE CITY. He was overwhelmed, but he was there and trying to get more help.

    Re: Prisoners of Katrina Airs Sunday...in Great Br (none / 0) (#11)
    by HK on Sun Aug 13, 2006 at 03:27:22 PM EST
    I've just watched this documentary from the BBC and it was a real eye-opener. "God sent the hurricane, we didn't" has to be the biggest cop-out about the lack of planning I have ever heard. And I can't imagine whose bright idea it was that public defenders should be paid only out of money from traffic fines. Since traffic regulations took pretty low priority during and immediately after Katrina, this pot of money has been very small and 4 out of 5 public defenders have left to find other jobs in order to feed their families (quite understandably) which has left the justice system in even more of a mess than it was before. The way this disaster was dealt with was ~ and continues to be ~ a complete shambles.

    A NON-PARTISAN opinion on the fiasco: As I watched this play out, it seemed to be a no-win situation; if the Federal Government were to intervene earlier (prior to the storm), assuming full responsibility for the management of New Orleans (instead of the local incompetence left in charge), it still would have turned out badly. Residents still would have refused to leave, and the flood waters would have overtaken the area just as they did. Blame would still find a way. Dominoes falling... 3 days before the storm hit, I asked my husband why the City didn't utilize the available mass transit system and railway to get those persons out who said they could not remove themselves? Odd how many of the interviewed shrugged off, scoffing at the possible threat. A few were even light and smiling...Over and over we heard, "I can't leave"...it sounded more like, "I don't want to", and we have a lot of that down here, too...I didn't then know that this option to utilize the transit system was actually part of the New Orleans 'emergency plan', on paper, anyway. I still have not heard a legitimate answer from either side as to why this was never implemented. I've read that a great number of those school buses were "inactive"; broken down, due for maintenance...apparently not high on the priority list. What about the public transit system? Buses there...not enough, but something more than nothing. Trains? And those levees? Ultimately, who's responsibility is it to safe-guard a city and prioritize funding? The city itself. Tax cuts don't matter much if the money isn't being correctly applied to the designated purpose anyway... What time frame should the Federal Government follow to determine incompetence or inability in Local Government? This is a serious question, but we are addressing a comfort level. Looking at the event realistically, it would have been cutting very close to landfall by the time Big Brother got in there to evacuate those that would willingly leave, and afterwards...well...refering to my own experience as a 28 year hurricane veteran of South Florida - we are told to prepare for at least a week without power, water or access, and it is a given not to expect 'immediate' relief even in the most dire situation. (I plan to be stranded and then feel relieved if/when I'm not. If a CAT 4-5 heads toward us (being slightly inland but on the coastline), we leave for higher ground. Unfortunately, it is easier to look for blame further from home...but the truth is that years-long Local Government mismanagement allowed for this crisis, and the confused Federal Government was an added insult. Ineptness all around. Bottom line, yet the lesson not learned? We need to learn to take care of ourselves, period.