Recovery Zone: Orleans Parish Sheriff Shares His Experiences After Katrina

Residents of New Orleans were able to pick themselves up from the rubble and continue the decades-long tradition of Mardi Gras in February, but the region is still very much in a recovery state.

Basic amenities, such as schools and medical facilities, have reopened but the city continues to walk on wobbly legs as it works to regain the strength and infrastructure it once had.

The Orleans Parish Criminal Sheriff’s Office was not exempt from the destruction and disorder created by Hurricane Katrina and the floods that followed in late August and early September 2005. Several months later, only four of the city’s 12 correctional facilities are open and less than half of the sheriff’s office staff has returned to work.

Sheriff Marlin Gusman gave an update on recovery efforts during a phone interview from New Orleans and offered insight on the lessons he has learned in the wake of Katrina.

Correctional News: How is the rebuilding effort going?

Marlin Gusman: This was the largest evacuation in the history of any prison, and we did it by boat. We had over 6,000 inmates. Every single one got out safely and they are all accounted for. It’s an incredible testament to the team that is here.

We had 12 facilities and we’ve reopened four. It’s a real challenge opening some right now because they are operated by the sheriff’s office, but owned by the City of New Orleans. The City of New Orleans is responsible for dealing with the Federal Emergency Management Agency and also with the insurance company and it’s been a little slow going working with them. We are right now back up to more than 1,500 beds.

CN: Are the four facilities that are open owned by the Sheriff’s Office?

MG: Yes, except for one — the House of Detention. Basically, with that I just ignored the city. It was the first facility I opened, and I just couldn’t wait for them. We reopened the jail on Oct. 17, which was less than 30 days after the water went down. The facility has a jail on floors two and above, but on the ground floor we had kind of mothballed it and used it as a carpenter’s shop. We had to go in and clean a lot of that out and a lot of the deputies pitched in and helped. After that we were able to open the facility.

The other facilities are owned by the Sheriff’s Law Enforcement District.

CN: A lot of rumors have circulated in the press regarding possible inmate escapes and deaths during the evacuation. Did anything like that occur?


 Marlin Gusman

MG: We had 6,020 inmates and eight or nine of them evaded custody — we’re not exactly sure where. They were all medium-security inmates and they are all back in custody at this time.

Everyone got out safely. Those were rumors and it’s unfortunate that the media reported them based upon stories and didn’t verify information with either my office or a third party, such as the Department of Corrections. In fact, when you look at the report done by Congress, one of the key points in it is news reporting and how it damaged perception. That’s one of the things that they cited as really being awful.

CN: Shifting back to the rebuilding effort, what are some of the biggest challenges you are facing right now?

MG: It’s just incredible the damage that water can do. Even though the water was actually only here for less than two weeks, a lot of it was salt water and it just got in and did havoc with the electrical systems, the life safety systems and the control systems. As you know, you can’t open a facility without having those systems in place, up to par and inspected. That has really been the biggest challenge. The sheer enormity of the problem that faces the whole city has been a challenge as well.

CN: When you realized the hurricane was on its way, what were some of the initial steps you took?

MG: We have a hurricane preparation plan and we executed that plan. It basically calls for us to prepare the facility and then do a vertical evacuation. Our buildings are built to withstand those winds and even higher winds. We suffered very minor damage from the storm. Our generators were running the day afterward, everything was fine and, as a matter of fact, I took a ride to survey some of the parts of the city.

It’s only when the water started to rise later Monday evening when we started to have some bad consequences. We started to have power failures because the generators were not placed high enough when the floodwaters came. In some cases, just like what happened at several hospitals, at one of our main jails the electrical systems were in the basement and that was the first thing that filled up.

That’s really what caused the problem and the need for the evacuation out of the city. It wasn’t the wind or storm itself — we had adequate provisions and everything we needed.

Two of the smaller jails and a facility in a neighboring parish relocated to our facility. We had discussions and looked at some of the reports, and there was just no way that a Department of Public Safety and Corrections could have handled an evacuation like this prior to the storm.

The mandatory evacuation was issued by the mayor on Sunday morning, the storm hit Sunday night and continued into Monday morning. On Saturday, we were getting ready, but to evacuate 6,000 inmates to secure institutions, you need more than a couple of days.

CN: That is a lot of people to move.

MG: It’s a lot of people to move and it’s not like moving school children. We worked with the Department of Public Safety and Corrections and we now have better plans in place. However, we executed the plan that we had.

CN: It sounds like the flooding created a major challenge to your plan.

MG: The flooding was really the problem. The afternoon after the storm, I checked in with the wardens and everybody said everything was OK. It was, until the water was coming up and kept coming. I had one warden who told me his generator was fine, but he had one problem. The tank was on the ground floor, so he couldn’t refill it once the water came up.

Since we’ve gone back into that building, we put another tank and another generator on the second floor. We are really not going back into any building without having accomplished better plans. In the unlikelihood that it should happen again, we will be prepared.

CN: What other lessons did you learn from the disaster?

MG: The first lesson is you have to be really careful and not have electrical equipment in lower-lying areas and vulnerable locations. Another thing we learned, and I guess it sounds sort of matter-of-fact now to us, is that when you are feeding in the electrical services it’s better to feed them from the top than from the bottom.

Everybody thinks if you bring it in from the bottom you can hide the lines along the baseboards. If you put it along the top it doesn’t look that good, but if all of our control systems had been fed from the ceiling as opposed to along the floor, we would have been able to recover a lot quicker.

We also have worked with the Department of Corrections on having a better communications system for moving inmates. For example, we can have better coordination with the facilities that we have to go to. We evacuated to 39 facilities and this is the first time this has ever happened, so they were caught a little bit by surprise. Now having done it, we are all a little smarter today than we were yesterday.

CN: Something else that we saw many reports on in the media was “Camp Greyhound,” a temporary holding facility that was erected at a bus/train depot. Do you consider that operation a success?

MG: During the evacuation the secretary of the Department of Public Safety of Corrections, along with the Angola warden and myself, surveyed the site. It was a makeshift temporary facility and it wasn’t designed to do anything other than be a temporary holding facility where we could hold someone for 24 hours. We brought people in, held them, processed them and at the right time took them out. If they were there overnight, it was because they got in there at the worst time.

It was high ground and it had some of the amenities that we really needed. They used a locomotive engine as basically a generator to power the building. The Department of Public Safety and Corrections really came through. They were a great partner and we really couldn’t have done it without their help. That was a jail that provided facilities for four parishes — Orleans, Jefferson, St. Bernard and Plaquemines.

The New York State Department of Corrections sent a team to work there along with some of our deputies and a team from Angola. They made it work.

CN: There has been a drastic population change in New Orleans since Katrina hit. How has the inmate population changed?

MG: We were the nation’s seventh- or eighth-largest jail system. We had about 6,000 inmates, now we are about a 1,500 population. We’re seeing about half the number of arrests and they are not for violent crimes. There is some violent crime, but a lot of it is trespassing and drug use. We still have people that are breaking the law, so we have to have jails.

CN: Is there the possibility that some of the eight facilities might not ever come back online?

MG: There is a possibility that we may redirect the use of some of them. Right now we are focused on trying to recover and as we recover we will look at the rebuilding. We are still in a recovery stage.

CN: There has been an influx of Mexican immigrants in New Orleans looking for employment in the wake of Katrina. Has that new population created any language issues for your department?

MG: We are an international city in a lot of ways, so we have Spanish-speaking people that work with our office. One of the things that we had to do was redirect some of our people who speak Spanish to work in the lockup. We had some people on the medical staff, as well as teachers and deputies who speak Spanish. It comes in spurts, but we had a good spurt where they were bringing in illegal aliens constantly.

CN: How has your department fared in regards to post-Katrina staffing?

MG: Again, as I said, we are still in recovery. We just opened up a trailer city with about 30 trailers where people can live with their families. We put a nice picnic area in it with a basketball goal and recreation area. They are designing another one and they are going to begin construction on it real soon. We also have another 30 trailers spread around our campus.

Housing is a really big issue. It’s one of the challenges that people face when the come back. We can offer them employment if they come back, but they need a place to stay.

Another challenge is our access to schools and medical facilities. Deputies are OK, but they have family members and the family member might have special needs. You can’t bring them back unless there are adequate medical facilities and children must have schools that they can come back to.

We are about to start on an 800-bed temporary jail that should be constructed in about 45 days that will allow us to bring more people back. We are still in recovery.

CN: How low is your staff right now?

MG: We had about 1,100 total staff; right now we are at about 450. But, when you look at our city population it is at less than a third.

CN: Do you have any idea when you will be fully recovered?

MG: I wish I knew. I wish it would happen soon — I’m speaking now about the whole city. We’re just working at it.

We keep the jail and we are responsible for the security in the courtrooms. The courtrooms right now are being operated out of the federal courthouse and a courtroom we set up here at the jail. We are hoping the court system can get back up pretty soon. The parish owns the courthouse and they haven’t been quick to recover.

CN: It sounds like everything needs to recover at the same time for it to really work.

MG: For example, at the courthouse we have what they call docks behind it and immediately behind it is another jail. It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to open up the courthouse unless we can open up the jail behind it because we transport the prisoners in through the back entrances and not where the public is. That is just one of the challenges that we are dealing with.

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