Hurricane Katrina and the Lost Prisoners of New Orleans

On August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast. This is what it was like watching the event unfold from behind bars.
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The following essay, "Katrina's Unscheduled Visit," is adapted from Exile Nation: Drugs, Prisons, Politics & Spirituality (2009, Reality Sandwich), Charles Shaw's critically-acclaimed memoir of prison and the drug war, running weekly on Reality Sandwich.

On August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast. The following describes the experience of watching the event unfold from behind bars.

Like it did with most of the nation, Hurricane Katrina caught the inmates of the East Moline Correctional Center completely off-guard. At 3:00am on the morning of August 29, 2005, at the same time I was rising to go work my dishwashing shift in the Dietary unit, Katrina was just another storm warning for a far-away part of the country, ticking across the bottom of television sets. None of us had any real understanding of its significance, or that in just a few hours the American landscape--both physical and political--would begin to change in astonishing ways.

Our limited awareness of events in the outside world generally meant that the news and facts of day-to-day American life passed us by. Few showed any interest in keeping up with the news, and the only news source available to us was CNN, which meant that we got very little actual news.

By 6:00a.m., as half-asleep inmates shuffled into the chow line for breakfast, Katrina made landfall, overwhelming the Gulf Coast with the deafening scream of a Harpy escaping the swirling overheated mass that was the Gulf of Mexico. Her storm surge rocked the Mississippi Basin, shattering the decayed levees that ostensibly protected New Orleans from the eager encroachment of the Gulf. Within in a matter of days Katrina would also shatter the myths of security, competency and order that generations of politicians had so shamelessly spun.

At the same time the storm was unfolding at the mouth of the Mississippi, a thousand miles upstream in the Quad Cities of Illinois and Iowa, it was just another day at "The Sweet Moline," the ironic yet affectionate nickname for our prison. That quiet August morning was the soft lull before the foul realities started seeping in like the polluted waters that flooded the streets of New Orleans.

When my shift ended around 10:00 a.m. I was released to return to C-Wing, my cellblock. It was now the morning open movement period, so I changed into shorts and a t-shirt and went outside to run about four miles around the yard. I came back, showered, and read a bit while I waited for lunchtime to come around. After lunch, I slept in my cell for an hour or so before the afternoon movement period began, and then went to the library until two-thirty.

It wasn't until much later in the afternoon, when I returned from the library, that I began to get a clue as to what was going down in the Bayou. The one general-use television in our housing unit was usually blaring daytime talk shows like Springer and Maury, or reruns of COPS. This morning it was tuned to a CNN "Special Report." A few guys were gathered around the set, silent. When I got to my cell, Tim emerged from his cell next door and said, "You gotta see this." I ducked into his cell to watch coverage on his small private TV, and I didn't leave again until dinner.

I had never been in a hurricane, but my mother and grandparents went through it regularly where they lived in Southwest Florida. Only the year before the area suffered through one of the worst hurricane seasons ever, the only time in recorded history that five hurricanes hit one state in a single season. Bonnie, Charley, Frances, Ivan, and Jeanne collectively killed 3,132 people and caused over $50 billion worth of damage. Little did we know we were just about to have the phrase "a bad hurricane" completely redefined.

I was increasingly concerned about my mother and grandparent's safety after hearing that Katrina passed over Southwest Florida on it's way north to Louisiana, but I had no way of reaching them. Before I went into prison my mother and I made a relatively mutual decision that we would not communicate by phone while I was locked up for fear of my grandparents finding out I was in prison.

"They are old and tired and wouldn't understand," she said. Because of that, her telephone number was not among the pre-screened and approved numbers I was allowed to call. Now I was regretting everything about that decision.

On the first night of the storm "The Sweet Moline" went about its usual business according to the ossified routine we followed day in and day out. After dinner and the early-evening count, I went to the library, as I always did, to write in my journal. When movement closed and I returned to C-Wing the whole place was buzzing. Not, as you might think, about Hurricane Katrina, but instead about the premier of a new Fox TV series called Prison Break.

Prison Break was filmed on location at the infamous and now-decommissioned Joliet Penitentiary, which served as the intake facility for anyone incarcerated in the Illinois Department of Corrections before 2004. It was your first taste of what lay ahead, where you were processed into the system to await shipment to the main prison facility where you would serve out your sentence. By the summer of 2005, however, a new state-of-the-art processing center the size of an airplane hanger had opened only a few miles away. Because of that, nearly all the repeat offenders around me had done some time in old Joliet, and there were a lot of them. Rumors were already flying around the deck. Inmates were telling whoever would listen that "guys they knew" had served as the models for various characters and events in the series. It was preposterous jailhouse bullshit, but no one seemed to mind.

I had never seen this many inmates this excited about anything. They choked the two-man cells, agglomerating around every available television screen, and the collective noise of two dozen sets tuned to the same channel echoed throughout the concrete and tile cellblock lending every line a creepy übervox quality. The whole thing was bizarre and unsettling and smacked of a certain pointed masochism. This surreal image of men in prison blues, watching a dramatic television program about their fictional doppelgängers in a prison in which they themselves had done time, was a bit on the nose, don't you think?

I had no interest in watching, but Tim and his cellie Boswell, and my cellie Cooper, talked me into it. There was nothing else to do anyway. The four of us crammed into Tim and Boswell's cell to watch. It felt like it was a few hundred degrees inside: we were, after all, still embroiled in one of the hottest summers on record, and there was no ventilation in our cellblock. It was a virtual brick oven.

Prison Break was ridiculous, a sensationalistic piece of pernicious penal agitprop riddled with every tired prison cliché you could imagine: cartoonishly fiendish villains and C.O.s, prison bitches and snitches galore. Within half an hour I was dying for it to be over.

I stayed and watched until the end because it was the only way I could hear about Katrina, which updated with every commercial break. It was looking pretty grim, but there was no mention of any serious damage to Florida. I went to sleep at lockdown assuming my mother and grandparents were OK. I would not know for sure until after I was released in a week.

The next day, after another half-asleep breakfast shift, I got myself in front of a TV at 8:30am when the C-Wing television could officially be turned on. Virtually no one was on the Wing at that time of day--most were at their work assignments--so I sat alone and stared gape-mouthed at the footage of New Orleans under eight feet of murky brown water.

I had never seen anything like this. Water streaming into the city from gashes in the levees, people stranded on rooftops waving for rescue, others wading neck deep in the filthy water. There was bedlam at the Superdome and the Convention Center, and widespread reports of violence and looting (by police as well as the citizenry). Smoke rose from the skyline, and aerial shots of the city looked like we were witnessing the collapse of civilization.

By late afternoon word of the severity of the storm had spread and inmates began to crowd around the unit set to watch the ongoing coverage. This scene would not change for days, and in that time the tone on C-Wing would shift noticeably. The place was usually deafeningly loud, but now all you could hear, once again, was the combined sound of every set tuned to CNN, and the same creepy übervox. Only now it brimmed with the fear and gravitas of bewildered CNN anchors and reporters.

We learned the Governor of Louisiana had ordered the mandatory evacuation of New Orleans, but not everyone got out before the storm hit. She asked Bush to send in federal troops to restore law and order; later I learned he sent Blackwater. Buses lined the sides of the highways as teaming masses of people vied for escape. Nearly all the desperate faces in the television shots were black, a fact not unnoticed by those around me.

Then, spontaneously, someone said, "You know...people was locked up down there."

We silently acknowledged the helpless lockdown situation we ourselves were in and tried to contain the deep terror rising within each of us. Would we be left to die in the event of a catastrophe here? And the more important, and painful, question: would anyone care?

The anxiety amongst the inmates lasted for days, until, almost like an answer from heaven, CNN broadcast an aerial shot of prisoners in orange jumpsuits sitting on a highway off-ramp, surrounded by guards who were leveling shotguns at them. We had no further information on who these particular inmates were or what prison or jail they were from. Yet many of the "Sweet Moline" inmates embraced the image as a palliative and let go of their fears of being abandoned to drown or starve and eventually die in prison.

I don't blame them for doing so, but I wasn't eased at all by what I saw. I knew Louisiana was home to a fairly extensive prison system, and the Orleans Parish Prison itself was right in the heart of the city. I knew that if they couldn't get regular citizens out in time, they sure as hell didn't waste any time thinking about criminals. Although I said nothing about it at the time, some of our darkest unspoken fears would be confirmed in late September when news broke that the 7,000 inmates at Orleans Parish Prison--one third of whom were pre-trial defendants who had not been convicted of any crime--were indeed left to die.

As the prison flooded with storm water befouled by raw sewage the prisoners were herded into cells with mace, locked down, and abandoned. The men completely panicked.

"They left us like dogs," one prisoner would later recount in the BBC documentary, Prisoners of Katrina. "Eight men in a two man cell with no food and no water, covered with mace you couldn't wash off. It was an experience I wouldn't wish on nobody."

In some cases men broke out of their cells and rioted, viciously attacking each other. The official story from the Sheriff of Orleans Parish was that there was "no loss of life." Those who were there claim to have seen dead bodies and furiously challenged the Sheriff's account. Who do you believe when you later learn that 517 prisoners would eventually go "unaccounted for?"

The floodwaters also ruined the court records of thousands of criminal cases. After the OPP was finally evacuated, its prisoners were sent to facilities all over the state. Most arrived without identification or court documents, and were promptly forgotten. To make matters worse, the courthouse was closed for nine months, and the Parish lost 80% of their public defenders--who represent 85% of the defendants--because the funds to pay them had dried up faster than the floodwaters. Soon a backlog of thousands of cases choked the dockets of the few remaining advocates. Because so much evidence and documentation had been destroyed, many inmates--some innocent of any crime, others mere days or weeks from release--stayed locked away, becoming ghosts in the machine. It was everyone's greatest nightmare: The system had completely collapsed.

The black inmates of East Moline were tormented by the rapidly deteriorating plight of the largely poor and black residents of New Orleans, some of whom were relatives. Over the next few days these men would move from denial into shock into anger then into despair.

For the rest of the week the normal routine of East Moline shifted around Katrina's unscheduled visit. Inmates continued to gather around the television to argue with each other about what was or was not happening and why. It was difficult enough to be just another American, or just another human being, witnessing these historical events. But it was particularly hard watching the brothers around me go through every conceivable emotion watching their people endure blow after blow after blow while no one came to help.

They had always known, they would say, that the government hated them. But none of them would ever have thought that a whole city of their brothers and sisters, mothers and babies and grandmothers too, would be abandoned, left to suffer and die like animals.

We saw right through how the media was trying to spin it and were incensed by the fact that black people were being cast as "looters" while white people were simply "trying to survive." Eventually we would stop yelling at the TV screens and arguing with each other, and we would retreat into a somber and seething state of acceptance. There was nothing any of us could do, about any of it.

On September 6th I finally scribbled down in my journal the only words I would write that whole week:

My final week in prison was framed by the largest natural catastrophe in American history, Hurricane Katrina and the loss of New Orleans. The world as we know it changed so much in the last seven days. An entire American city has disappeared sending shockwaves racing across the country. While this is going on, in the background, the highest court of this nation is being transformed in a manner that will change the ideological face of America for a generation.

Of paramount concern to the inmates this week: what happened to all the prisoners in New Orleans? Were they evacuated? Or were they left to drown and rot? Our value as human beings in this society hinges on the answer we receive.

The Federal government has shown the deepest shades of its true colors as poor folk are left to suffer and die in filth and disease while the troops that have been deployed have orders to protect McMansions and high-end retail stores. The men around me clearly see that, in the eyes of the government, Brooks Brothers is worth more than their brothers. All this venal greed may be in vain, as we don't know whether the city can or will be rebuilt.

Everything that could go wrong did, meanwhile our government is still on vacation. Were this the plight of a white, brain-dead Christian woman on life-support about to have the plug pulled on her, they would have beat a hasty retreat to Washington to excoriate the Liberals for being cruel and inhuman and utterly without compassion[1]. As it stands, their only priority appears to be ramming an inexperienced and ideological nominee for Chief Justice down the collective gullet of a nation already choking on the physical and political detritus of Katrina.

Just when you think you've witnessed the most craven and inept our government has to offer, just when you think you've seen all the illegal invasions, all the Guantanamos and Abu Ghraibs, all the "free speech zones" and prison camps for protesters, politically opportunistic terror alerts, shameless corporate handouts, and merciless campaign demagoguery, along comes Michael "Heck of a Job, Brownie" Brown, the former director of an equestrian society who was appointed by Bush to be the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. A man so obscenely oblivious and incompetent he makes Bush look like Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

The phenomenal bungling of the emergency response and the appalling lack of concern shown by the politicians revealed that the jig is up. We know you're not really prepared for any terrorist attack or mass disaster, except perhaps to save yourselves. We know you don't care about us, and we know that anything you say and do from this time forward will be empty and meaningless pandering.

We need to see Katrina for what she is, a harbinger of things to come.

The wrath of god is upon us.

In ancient Greek mythology the Harpies were the daughters of Typhon, the last Titan born of Gaia, from which we get typhoon, or "violent storm." The Harpies are considered personifications of the destructive nature of wind. But with Katrina, the mythic identification goes much deeper.

The Harpies were used by Zeus to punish the Thracian king Phineas for revealing the secrets of the Gods to his people. Phineas was imprisoned on an island with a giant feast laid before him that he could never eat because the Harpies would steal food from his hands, and befoul the rest with their droppings. He was left to starve, for all eternity.

The screeching Harpy named Katrina was a changeling. She first appeared as the winds of the storm driven by an angry and overheated planet, and later she morphed into the screaming contempt and incompetence of the Federal government, who, after snatching food from our mouths for years, befouled both New Orleans and our faith in their ability to govern.

Hurricane Katrina washed away so much more than the Gulf Coast. She washed away the collective illusions of a nation that believed their government would always be ready to help them. She washed away the hopes of poor Americans that they too mattered in the big picture of the American Dream, and she washed away the faith that those who own and run this country are concerned with something other than their own agendas.



1. This reference, surprisingly dated by now, refers to the Terri Schiavo case, where a woman with Persistent Vegetative State was disconnected from life support by her husband and legal guardian, and became a casus belli for the Pro Life movement, launching an incendiary political issue that culminated with George Bush leaving his vacation in March of 2005 to sign legislation about Schiavo. Eventually the courts ruled in favor of the legal guardian and she was permitted to die, as was her wishes through a "Do Not Resuscitate" (DNC) order.

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