NEW ORLEANS- The American Civil Liberties Union today released a report revealing continuing incidents of racial injustice and human rights abuses on the Gulf Coast since Hurricane Katrina devastated the area two years ago. In its report, Broken Promises: Two Years After Katrina, the ACLU exposes numerous civil rights violations that have occurred in Louisiana and Mississippi since the storm, including reports of heightened racially motivated police activity, housing discrimination, and prisoner abuse.
"As Americans, we should all feel ashamed of the treatment that poor people of color, prisoners, and other vulnerable people have endured in the aftermath of Katrina," said Anthony D. Romero, Executive Director of the ACLU. "Despite repeated broken promises from politicians, it is terribly disheartening that two years later, this mistreatment still exists. The government cannot be allowed to evade responsibility any longer for its role in the gross civil rights violations that permeate the Gulf Coast."
In light of its findings, the ACLU calls on Congress to pass legislation to address post-Katrina injustices, including racial profiling, voter disenfranchisement, and the dearth of health care facilities and low-income housing. The ACLU also calls on the Department of Justice to investigate severe problems at Orleans Parish Prison (OPP), the New Orleans jail system where prisoners were abandoned during the storm. Today, OPP is plagued by inhumane and dangerous conditions, inadequate medical and mental health care, and lack of preparedness for possible future storms. The ACLU says that government officials must implement a thorough evacuation plan for OPP and provide funding to a severely understaffed public defender system.
Broken Promises poignantly describes personal accounts of people who were victimized in Katrina's aftermath. In one case, Steven Elloie, an African-American bar manager, was brutally beaten and tasered by New Orleans police officers after they illegally searched the premises and harassed patrons at his family-owned bar in Central City, a predominantly African-American neighborhood. Despite the fact that he suffered severe injuries, the police officers brought Elloie to the OPP where he was turned away and directed to the hospital to receive treatment for trauma to his head, body, and extremities. Charges against Elloie of resisting arrest and battery against an officer were eventually dropped, but Elloie's complaint against the police officers was "not sustained" despite numerous witness accounts that were consistent with Elloie's claims. The ACLU filed a lawsuit on behalf of Elloie against the city of New Orleans in June 2007.
"Since the storm, the ACLU has seen an increase in complaints about police abuse, neglect of prisoners, and racial discrimination," said Reggie Shuford, a senior staff attorney for the ACLU's Racial Justice Project. "Sadly, horrific stories like Mr. Elloie's are not uncommon."
The ACLU report also describes a case where the ACLU intervened on behalf of two displaced families from New Orleans whose children were discriminated against by local schools and law enforcement in Mississippi. It also highlights the ongoing housing crisis on the Gulf Coast and the work of the ACLU of Mississippi to advocate for more transparency in the way that governmental funds are being distributed.
"As the housing crisis continues on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, hundreds of families who remain in FEMA trailer parks are being evicted," said Nsombi Lambright, Executive Director of the ACLU of Mississippi. "Citizens are being denied access to the planning process to rebuild affordable housing on the Gulf Coast, while wealthy developers have been able to build new condos and casinos with ease."
In addition to discrimination and abuse on the streets, violence and neglect run rampant behind the walls of the jails, according to the ACLU report. Some conditions in OPP have even worsened since last year when the ACLU released another report, Abandoned & Abused: Orleans Parish Prisoners in the Wake of Hurricane Katrina, about the treatment of OPP's prisoners before, during, and after the storm. The House of Detention, the largest of four jail buildings reopened since the storm, is severely overcrowded and conditions are squalid. Prisoners are forced to sleep on the floor without mattresses for weeks at a time in areas where up to 18 prisoners are held in cells designed for 10 people. There is no air-conditioning in most of the overcrowded facility despite excessive heat. These inhumane and dangerous conditions are exacerbated by severe understaffing at the jail.
"Conditions in the New Orleans jails are among the worst in the nation," said Eric Balaban, senior staff counsel for the ACLU's National Prison Project. "The lives of staff and inmates in the House of Detention are constantly in danger because of its outmoded design, lack of staffing, and neglect by the sheriff to ensure the facility is prepared for an emergency."
According to the ACLU report, medical and mental health services at the jails are grossly inadequate. There reportedly have been several recent outbreaks of "staph" infections, a highly contagious and potentially fatal disease caused by filth and unsanitary conditions, and efforts to provide treatment are deficient. Prisoners who are identified as needing mental health care after being taken into custody have been sent to a unit where they are strapped down to a bed in five-point restraints. The ACLU has received reports of prisoners being left there, largely unsupervised, for days at a time without any breaks, even to use the restroom. The ACLU describes in its report one case where a prisoner was restrained to a bed covered in a brown substance that appeared to be blood or feces, and was forced to twist his body to urinate on the floor next to him while confined to the table at his feet, wrists, and head.
"Since the storm, the solution to mental health problems in New Orleans has been to just "lock them up,'" said Katie Schwartzmann, a staff attorney for the ACLU of Louisiana. "There are very few mental health services left in this city, and therefore people are going to jail, where they are subjected to abuse and neglect, because of their mental illness."
The ACLU report includes personal accounts from former prisoners, evacuees, and local advocates who have endured or witnessed the chaos since the storm.
A copy of the report and video testimonials are available online at:http://www.aclu.org/prison/conditions/katrina/katrina.html