On Sunday, Aug. 29, history painfully repeated itself as Hurricane Ida made landfall on the 16th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. The storm ripped through southeastern Louisiana, leaving widespread power outages, flooding, gas shortages, and devastation of people’s homes in its wake. Though evacuation orders were implemented in the days and hours leading up to the deadly hurricane, some incarcerated people were left behind—reigniting discussions about how vulnerable populations are treated during natural disasters.
During Hurricane Katrina, Sheriff Marlin Gusman—who still serves Orleans Parish—refused to evacuate the some 7,000 people incarcerated in Orleans Parish Prison despite the city-wide mandatory evacuation order by the mayor.
This time around, more than 2,500 people incarcerated in jails within the storm path were evacuated before Ida touched down on Sunday. Jails in Orleans, Plaquemines, Acadia, St. Mary, Vermillion, Terrebonne, and St. Bernard parishes were among those evacuated before the storm.
“This year we’ve seen an unprecedented amount of evacuations that happened before we started making calls, and that’s directly related to strategically having organized to do that for years,” said Mei Azaad of Fight Toxic Prisons, a grassroots community organization that works nationally at front lines of climate chaos, environmental justice, and abolition.
Azaad, along with fellow members of Fight Toxic Prisons, mobilized the public for call-in campaigns to pressure Louisiana jails to evacuate detainees before Hurricane Ida. They’ve organized similar actions in the face of other natural disasters in the past, like Hurricane Harvey, Hurricane Laura, and Hurricane Florence.
In addition to urging facilities to have an evacuation plan, Fight Toxic Prisons also organizes to support people who are incarcerated in the aftermath of a natural disaster. That often looks like helping to connect them with loved ones and sending them commissary money for supplies. Though Azaad, who has been organizing with Fight Toxic Prisons since 2018, emphasized that the best support for incarcerated people during a natural disaster comes before the storm hits.
“Most of the people who die while incarcerated don’t die during the storm from the impact of the storm itself, but rather in the days following when there’s no clean water and no power for days, and people are forced to drink water from the toilet,” Azaad said. From the outside and in the aftermath of the storm, Azaad says they and their organizing peers are limited in what they can offer as the reception of supplies is at the discretion of prison and jail facilities.
Jails in Lafourche, Jefferson, St. Charles, and St. John the Baptist parishes did not evacuate their residents. In Jefferson Parish, one of the regions hit hardest by the hurricane and where thousands of residents have been left without power or running water, more than 1,100 people detained in the Jefferson Parish Correctional Center were left to ride out the storm. Lafourche Parish Jail suffered minimal damage from the hurricane. The sheriff has not released information about damage to the other prisons, but city leaders across all parishes say flooding has been widespread and devastating.
In Lafourche Parish, not only were incarcerated people left in the storm path, but they were tasked with filling sandbags for elderly and disabled residents to mitigate flood damage. On Aug. 28, the Lafourche Parish Sheriff’s Office shared—and later deleted—video on Twitter of incarcerated people filling the sandbags and sharing a link to pick-up sites. The sheriff’s office did not respond to requests for comment about the tweet or evacuation plans.
And according to reporting by Nicholas Chastril in The Lens, pre-trial detainees held at Orleans Parish Prison were evacuated more than two hours away to the Louisiana State Penitentiary, often called Angola. Angola is in the midst of navigating a public health emergency of its own, with eight incarcerated people and 27 staff testing positive for COVID-19 the week prior.
The lack of an effective, standardized response to a natural disaster whose devastation was predicted well in advance belies the vulnerability of incarcerated people during emergencies like these, and the maze of barriers between them and their safety.
During Hurricane Katrina, thousands of people in Orleans Parish Prison—including hundreds pretrial detainees who had yet to be formally charged with any crime—were left to fend for themselves inside without electricity for days. Their cell doors were sealed shut as the flood of water and sewage rose to their chests.
The horrors of Katrina forced the hands of elected officials to change some aspects of the city’s justice system that kept that many people in pretrial detention. Before Katrina, nearly half of the people in OPP didn’t wind up getting prosecuted at all. After implementing alternatives to jail time for municipal offenses, a pretrial risk assessment model and changing the funding structure of the jail, the city’s jail population has fallen 67% in the years since Katrina.
But these changes have done little to address the larger, national issue of an arbitrary emergency response protocol that can vary facility by facility. So, the problem replicates time and again.
In 2017, incarcerated people at the Federal Correctional Complex in Beaumont, Texas, were left without water post-Hurricane Harvey and reported having to relieve themselves in plastic bags to conserve toilet water. In 2018, people incarcerated in South Carolina were neither evacuated nor were they allowed to prepare for Hurricane Florence by storing extra water.
To make matters worse, not only is there a massive lack of effective protocol for people housed in jails or prisons in an emergency, but, like in Lafourche Parish, their labor is frequently used to respond to these natural disasters.
In California, for example, incarcerated people are regularly called upon to fight wildfires. It wasn’t until 2020 that incarcerated people whom the state relied on to quell the fires would be eligible to pursue a job as a firefighter upon their release.
“This is a huge thing that we’ve been working on the past four years, just trying to pressure policymakers to implement standardized protocols for evacuation because right now there aren’t,” Azaad said, noting they’ve seen success with mass call-in campaigns. “We need to keep fighting until there’s standardized protocols that say if an area is under mandatory evacuation order for a hurricane, incarcerated people need to be included in that at the very, very basic least. We’ve been fighting for that for years and a lot of people have died unnecessarily.”