Evacuated Prisoners Held in Limbo After Katrina

Hundreds of evacuated inmates in Louisiana are languishing in legal limbo on minor charges — some in maximum-security prisons like Angola. They're paying an extra price for Hurricane Katrina's devastation to the criminal justice system.

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Next we have one more consequence of Hurricane Katrina. The storm left many jail inmates scattered among prisons across Louisiana. Some are being held on minor charges, like trespassing or writing bad checks. Now they're paying an extra price for Katrina's devastation to the criminal justice system. NPR's Libby Lewis reports.

LIBBY LEWIS reporting:

Thomas Carr, Jr. had a problem with drugs, but he and his father say that's the past. This summer, 21-year-old Carr was living and working as a roofer in St. Bernard Parish. In August his probation officer said Carr violated the terms of his house arrest. A judge ordered him to serve 30 days in jail. That was August 9th. Then Katrina struck and changed Thomas Carr's life, along with so many others.

Instead of 30 days, Carr spent 62 days locked up, some of it in conditions he would not wish on any human being. First, he was evacuated to the Orleans Parish prison. He spent three days with no power, no water and little food, in filthy floodwaters he says eventually rose to his chest.

Mr. THOMAS CARR Jr. (Former Inmate): Didn't ever expect anything like that to happen, and since it did, it's just--I don't know. I'm never going to forget it. I know that.

LEWIS: Later he wound up at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, a former slave plantation where Louisiana's hardest criminals go to live, and some to die by execution. He says Angola was paradise compared to where he'd been. He's speaking now from his uncle's in Alabama.

(Soundbite of bird and nature sounds)

Mr. CARR: It was strict and they had a lot of ups and downs, but all in all, I was grateful for being out of the slush and the water. I was just grateful to be on dry land. I wanted to go home, you know. I just--it felt like I was never going to get go home.

LEWIS: Carr's father lobbied everyone he could find, including the state attorney general's office, to convince them his son should be out, and it worked. But Carr says he left a lot of inmate evacuees sitting in Angola. Nick Trenticosta is a criminal defense attorney in New Orleans.

Mr. NICK TRENTICOSTA (Criminal Defense Attorney): We have a ton of minor offenses in state court: drug paraphernalia, writing a bad check, theft of goods under $100. These are all small offenses that we will be arguing. These people should be home, not locked up.

LEWIS: If you're poor in Louisiana, it's hard enough to get legal help. Katrina has just made it worse. Thirty of 39 New Orleans public defenders no longer even have a job. Inmate Allison Hall(ph) is one of those left in limbo. She's been locked up since June the 8th for possessing drug paraphernalia and public drunkenness. Before Katrina hit, Hall's probation officer asked that she be kept in jail until a judge could consider her case. But that hasn't been possible. The courts have been closed for eight weeks and will only partially reopen today. So she's locked up in Angola, a men's prison. Her daughter is Erica Hall(ph).

Ms. ERICA HALL (Daughter of Inmate): Well, my mom, she's been getting into a little bit of trouble every once in a while. They told her she was going to be getting out on the 7th, but she didn't because of the evacuation. But I know it's time for her to come home. She's been in there too long.

LEWIS: Julie Collins is with the Louisiana attorney general's office. She's been helping the parish courts grapple with damaged records, to help piece together which inmates should be out of prison. She says it may be a slow process, but it is working. Collins helped get Thomas Carr out of Angola.

Ms. JULIE COLLINS (Attorney General's Office, Louisiana): It's my feeling that people who ought to be out are either out or getting out in the immediate future. I honestly cannot suggest one thing that could have been done that hasn't been done. And there probably are some people who have served some sentences a little bit longer than they should have, but it is not from lack of trying.

LEWIS: But private lawyers who work with indigent defendants are tired of waiting. They filed about a half dozen lawsuits in state and federal court demanding urgent action on behalf of inmates they say should be out. Defense lawyer Trenticosta filed two of those lawsuits. He says at least 66 women have been released from Angola as a result. Lawyers just filed another petition aimed at getting 182 more men and women, including Allison Hall, out of Angola. Libby Lewis, NPR News.

INSKEEP: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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