This story originally appeared on The Lens on September 7, 2021, and is shared with permission.
Over a dozen civil rights groups are raising questions about why some local jails in Hurricane Ida’s path were not evacuated prior to the Category 4 storm, which devastated much of southeast Louisiana on Aug. 29.
In a Sept. 3 letter to Gov. John Bel Edwards—written by the Promise of Justice Initiative and signed by the ACLU of Louisiana, Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights, and Voice of the Experienced, among others—the organizations requested that “the state provide an answer as to why these vulnerable residents were left in harm’s way, as well an assurance that in the future, confinement in a Louisiana prison or jail does not translate to a potential death sentence during a life-threatening major weather event.”
Many parishes—including Orleans, Terrebonne, Plaquemines, and Acadia—decided to evacuate jail detainees prior to the storm, sending them to state prisons and other local facilities. But two parishes that issued mandatory evacuation orders—Lafourche and St. Charles—decided not to evacuate their jails.
In the letter, PJI says that there shouldn’t have been an exception for people in jail.
“Mandatory evacuation orders should apply to everyone,” the letter reads.
A spokesperson for Edwards, Shauna Sanford, said in an email that “the evacuation of local jails is a local level decision that the sheriff is in a better position to make.”
But the letter from the civil rights groups suggests that the state should “institute guidelines for correctional facilities, particularly in the event of a mandatory evacuation order, and designate evacuation sites for all parish correctional facilities in anticipation of future storms.”
“This was a predictable situation and the state should have been prepared to protect all of its citizens—including those who are incarcerated,” said Mercedes Montagnes, director of the Promise of Justice Initiative, in a statement to The Lens. “If public safety requires a mandatory evacuation of certain dangerous areas for the public, that should 100% equally extend to people in jails and prisons in those areas.”
The sheriff’s offices in both Lafourche and St. Charles parishes have said that the jails are in good condition and have generator power and running water, but did not respond to requests for comment on why they decided not to evacuate.
As for those facilities that did evacuate, the organizations are asking Edwards for assurances that detainees have been or will be returned to functioning jails and for details on how the facilities will be evaluated for safety and health prior to their return. All the detainees from jails that were evacuated, aside from those in Terrebonne and St. Bernard parishes have now been returned.
“We truly hope that nobody who was evacuated will be returned to the jails before basic necessities like food, running water, power, and air conditioning have been secured,” Montagnes said.
But Sanford said that it is up to sheriffs, not the state, to decide when a facility is ready to house people again.
“The local sheriff assesses his/her parish prison prior to the return of inmates to determine whether that facility is inhabitable,” Sanford wrote. “If the local sheriff determines that the facility is not inhabitable, the DOC will work with that parish to either make arrangements to leave inmates in the evacuation location, or reassign inmates to another facility. The incarcerated population that has been returned were returned to facilities that were not structurally damaged, they were only without power, which has been restored.”
People who were evacuated from the Plaquemines Parish Detention Center were returned to the facility just days after the storm, on Wednesday, Sept. 1. Yet the storm left much of the parish without running water or electricity.
The Plaquemines Parish Sheriff’s Office did not respond to inquiries from The Lens regarding conditions of the jail. Plaquemines Parish Emergency Operations and Homeland Security Director Patrick Harvey said that the jail is running on generator power and has access to water, according to a report by WDSU.
Since the storm—with wide-ranging power outages and phone service down—some people have struggled to reach their loved ones incarcerated in places that were hit by Ida. The jails in both Lafourche and St. Charles had phone lines down as of Sept. 2, according to the letter. (The phone at the Lafourche jail was back up as of Tuesday, but Nelson Coleman Correctional in St. Charles was still down.)
The advocacy organizations suggest that the state should develop some mechanism for locating and contacting incarcerated people following a storm, and that there should be free phone calls made available to those who were evacuated to other facilities.
“Without a specific hotline or database available to quickly locate incarcerated individuals, families in Louisiana remain unaware of their loved ones’ health and safety status, and vice versa,” the letter reads. “The anxiety common to hurricane events such as Ida is particularly heightened for people who are incarcerated and for those on the outside who love and care about them.”
Sanford, with the governor’s office, said that the first priority during evacuations was the safe transfer of detainees and making sure they were provided with a safe shelter, but admitted that communication had been difficult.
“Ultimately we have always made arrangements for prisoners to contact their family,” Sanford said. “However, that proved to be a challenge as Hurricane Ida either destroyed or damaged much of the communication infrastructure. Setting up communications during such an evacuation is difficult at best.”
She did not say whether or not the state would consider setting up a database or hotline as suggested by the organizations in their letter.
The letter also requests information on what COVID-19 precautions were taken, and suggests that when detainees are transferred to state facilities, it would provide “an opportunity to create mass vaccination sites for people who would ordinarily be spread throughout the state in local facilities.”
“Vaccination sites could be staffed by the Louisiana Department of Health and would help dramatically increase vaccination rates among Louisiana’s incarcerated population,” the letter reads.
As of late last month, the vaccination rate among prisoners at DOC facilities was 73%, significantly higher than the statewide rate. Much less is known about the vaccination rates—or any information related to COVID-19, such as infection rates, deaths, or hospitalizations—at local jails throughout the state. The DOC has repeatedly referred requests regarding COVID-19 in local facilities to the Louisiana Sheriff’s Association, which has not responded to multiple calls and requests for information from The Lens. Michael Ranatza, the Executive Director of the organization, was unable to be reached on Tuesday.
“The Department of Corrections continues to follow CDC and Louisiana Department of Health protocols and recommendations at its facilities and in the transport of inmates,” Sanford said. “Evacuated inmates were not comingled with inmates at the prison to which they were evacuated.”