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Louisiana's criminal justice, prison systems slowly begin recovery

NEW ORLEANS—When the Orleans Parish Prison was evacuated during Hurricane Katrina, the inmates wore colored armbands that indicated the nature of their offenses. But by the time they arrived at temporary holding facilities scattered throughout the state, some were missing their armbands.

It didn't matter. The state corrections officers receiving the prisoners had no idea what the color codes meant.

The armbands are one example of how Hurricane Katrina and the mass evacuation of 8,500 inmates from prisons in three Louisiana parishes, or counties, threw the state's corrections and court systems into chaos from which they're only beginning to recover.

Records and evidence against some of the prisoners may have been lost or destroyed in the floods. Some people who were picked up on minor offenses or were due to be released from jail just before Katrina hit remain in prison almost five weeks later. Prisoners rights advocates suspect that hundreds of inmates may have died or escaped when the jails were flooded, something that Orleans Parish and state officials deny.

"It's a complete disaster, a complete shutdown of the criminal justice system," said attorney Rachel Jones, who's working with Human Rights Watch, which has interviewed more than 1,000 of the evacuated prisoners.

"We had a disastrous situation, so things didn't go as well as they could have," conceded Pam LaBorde, the spokeswoman for the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections.

At the top of the list of the legal system's woes are accounts of what happened to some of the 7,006 prisoners evacuated from the Orleans Parish prison. Corrine Carey, a researcher for Human Rights Watch, said the group's investigators can't find 349 men whose names were on lists of evacuated inmates.

"If no one died in the prison, we want to know where they are," said Carey, whose group tracks atrocities in places such as Uganda and Uzbekistan.

The uncertainty of the prisoners' fates prompted the American Civil Liberties Union to go to federal court. Eric Balaban of the ACLU's National Prison Project is seeking information about what happened to the prisoners, if dead bodies were disposed of, and what evacuation plans the jail had in place before the storm struck.

Orleans Parish Prison officials insist that no one—neither prisoners nor officers—died in the flood that resulted when city levees failed.

Confusion over the armbands that the Orleans Parish prisoners wore at receiving facilities is another example of the disorder.

In the parish prison, which is equivalent to a county jail, inmates wear color-coded armbands: yellow for misdemeanors and municipal offenses, such as failure to pay parking tickets; orange for nonviolent felony offenses such as drug possession; and red for violent offenders, said Meghan Darby, a researcher for the prisoners rights group.

The Orleans Parish Prison didn't provide the state corrections agency with a list of who was evacuated and their offenses. Officers had to identify the evacuated inmates by matching fingerprints with FBI files, then checking computer databases to figure out the inmates' offenses, she said.

While evacuated prisoners are now being housed and fed, Darby said, some inmates are being held long after their release dates.

For example, she said, a 47-year-old inmate, sentenced to 16 days in jail for falling asleep while performing a community service job, was supposed to be released on Sept 1. Another inmate, a 62-year-old man sentenced on Aug. 24 to 10 days in jail for public drunkenness, remains in prison, she said.

Then there are people who were arrested just before Katrina hit who haven't made their first court appearances, which is required within 72 hours after booking, Darby said.

LaBorde said 35 prisoners were released last week and another 350 are to be released in the next two weeks.

But before an inmate heads home, the state needs to know if he has a place to stay. The state wants to release those who can't find their families to shelters, LaBorde said.

Complicating matters are reports that court records and crime evidence have been lost or destroyed. But a spokeswoman for the Orleans Parish district attorney and the clerk of courts for neighboring Jefferson Parish, which also evacuated its prisoners, said all records are intact.

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(Crumbo reports for The State in Columbia, S.C.)

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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