NOTE: Still Andrew Gumbel guesting in the hotseat.
With another hurricane blowing in, Human Rights Watch has an absolute horror story about the last one. Just before Katrina struck, the authorities at the New Orleans city jail facility known as Templeman III simply upped and left, abandoning hundreds of prisoners who were locked up without food or water and, as the flood water rose, found themselves without power, fresh air, toilet facilities, or -- most pertinently -- any means of escape. How many died as a result remains unclear, but bodies were seen floating in the floodwaters when relief finally came after four days. Even now, almost three weeks later, 571 prisoners remain unaccounted for.
The most graphic part of HRW's account:
According to inmates interviewed by Human Rights Watch, they had no food or water from the inmate’s last meal over the weekend of August 27-28 until they were evacuated on Thursday, September 1. By Monday, August 29, the generators had died, leaving them without lights and sealed in without air circulation. The toilets backed up, creating an unbearable stench.
“They left us to die there,” Dan Bright, an Orleans Parish Prison inmate told Human Rights Watch at Rapides Parish Prison, where he was sent after the evacuation.
As the water began rising on the first floor, prisoners became anxious and then desperate. Some of the inmates were able to force open their cell doors, helped by inmates held in the common area. All of them, however, remained trapped in the locked facility.
Inmates broke jail windows to let air in. They also set fire to blankets and shirts and hung them out of the windows to let people know they were still in the facility. Apparently at least a dozen inmates jumped out of the windows.
”We started to see people in T3 hangin' shirts on fire out the windows,” Brooke Moss, an Orleans Parish Prison officer told Human Rights Watch. “They were wavin' em. Then we saw them jumping out of the windows . . . Later on, we saw a sign, I think somebody wrote `help' on it.”
As of yesterday, signs reading “Help Us,” and “One Man Down,” could still be seen hanging from a window in the third floor of Templeman III.
Several corrections officers told Human Rights Watch there was no evacuation plan for the prison, even though the facility had been evacuated during floods in the 1990s.
“It was complete chaos,” said a corrections officer with more than 30 years of service at Orleans Parish Prison. When asked what he thought happened to the inmates in Templeman III, he shook his head and said: “Ain't no tellin’ what happened to those people.”
I'm inclined to say the prisoners were treated like animals, but actually all evidence I gathered during my time in the disaster area suggests no animal would have been knowingly consigned to such a fate. Thousands of dogs and cats and other domestic creatures made homeless by Katrina were lovingly rescued and taken to special shelters (including one on the LSU campus in Baton Rouge where their minders, bizarrely, included numerous Scientologists). Prisoners, though, are apparently unworthy of such attentions.
Turns out, of course, that Katrina may only have been a warm-up act. Will Rita give everyone a chance to get it right this time, so they deploy not only advance aid consignments but also the appropriate dose of basic human consideration? Or does the nightmare of Templeman III suggest we are dealing with a very ugly aspect of human behaviour here, one that has existed for a long time in certain parts of the American South, that even a Category 4 hurricane and a face-to-face encounter with destruction and death cannot mitigate?