NEW ORLEANS - Citing violations of basic civil rights after Katrina hit the unevacuated and ultimately flooded Orleans Parish Prison (OPP), the ACLU of Louisiana will file a federal lawsuit today on behalf of OPP inmate Ronnie L. Morgan, Jr. Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman failed to ensure the safety and proper care of inmates in his custody, while forcibly keeping them in the path of Hurricane Katrina and the resulting floodwaters. Upon Morgan's transfer to Elayn Hunt Correctional Center, Warden Cornel Hubert allowed an unprovoked beating and stabbing of Mr. Morgan, a federal protective custody inmate.
"Mr. Morgan's case only adds to a sordid history of neglect at one of the most dangerous and mismanaged jails in the country," said Joe Cook, Executive Director, ACLU of Louisiana. "The culture of neglect was evident in the days before Katrina. Even as the mayor declared the first ever mandatory evacuation, Sheriff Gusman kept 6,000 adult inmates in place, and accepted others, including juveniles as young as 10, from other facilities to ride out the storm."
On August 28, 2005, as Hurricane Katrina headed for New Orleans, Sheriff Gusman appeared at a press conference at which he was asked whether the inmates would be evacuated from Orleans Parish Prison. He announced that the facility had backup generators, was fully staffed, and that the prisoners would remain "where they belong."
"Sheriff Gusman had a basic duty to execute an effective emergency operations plan," said Katie Schwartzmann, Staff Attorney, ACLU of Louisiana. "His failure to protect human beings who were unable to protect themselves caused serious harm to Mr. Morgan and other OPP inmates. This failure is a violation of basic human rights principles and the Constitution."
When the storm hit New Orleans on Monday, August 29, 2005, the generators at Orleans Parish Prison failed, and the jail plunged into darkness. The inmates did not have food, water, or medical care. The toilets backed up with human waste. The situation remained like this for days. Mr. Morgan was held in the House of Detention facility, as a federal inmate in protective custody.
Ultimately, Mr. Morgan was moved by boat from Orleans Parish Prison and then transported to Elayn Hunt Correctional Center in St. Gabriel, Louisiana. At Hunt, thousands of OPP evacuees were placed on an open field surrounded by guards. Mr. Morgan and other inmates advised a Hunt official that they were in protective custody and should not be placed in the general population. An individual is placed in protective custody when there is a threat to that person's safety from other inmates. In spite of their objections, and in spite of the fact that inmates already on the field were gathering to attack them, the Hunt official forced the protective custody inmates onto the field.
Within minutes of being placed on the field, the protective custody inmates came under assault. Mr. Morgan was viciously beaten and stabbed in the head and neck by other inmates. Bleeding from the head, he asked the guards for help, but they refused and left him on the field with his attackers. Afraid to sleep, he wandered the field in the rain in blood-soaked clothing to avoid further attacks.
Mr. Morgan was finally evacuated from the field at Elayn Hunt, while never having received medical care for his wounds or protection from the guards, despite requesting both. Therefore, he turned to the court for relief with the requested help of the ACLU.
This case underscores once again the call by the ACLU's National Prison Project in the wake of its recent "Abandoned and Abused" report on OPP. The ACLU has urged the President to direct the Department of Justice to evaluate OPP's current evacuation plans in an effort to determine whether any meaningful improvements have been made over the past year. The ACLU has also asked Congress to audit the jail's emergency preparedness plans. The ACLU is calling for a full and immediate investigation into abuses at Louisiana correctional facilities during and after the storm and is also urging the DOJ to make the findings from such an investigation public and accessible to state and federal prosecutors.
The case will proceed in the Eastern District of Louisiana in New Orleans. Cooperating Attorney Vincent Booth of New Orleans and Katie Schwartzmann, Staff Attorney for the ACLU of Louisiana, serve as counsel for Mr. Morgan.