RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Louisiana knows a thing or two about tropical storms and hurricanes. It's of course been nearly two years since Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast. Some parts of New Orleans have made a steady recovery. Others have not. The House of Detention at the Orleans Parish Prison is in the latter category. Former inmates and outside observers report conditions there that are still not fit for humans.
NPR's Ari Shapiro reports.
ARI SHAPIRO: On an August afternoon in New Orleans the air is so thick and hot, it's like breathing gumbo. Sam Offenberg is here outside the New Orleans Parish Prison, sweating through his plaid shirt, waiting to interview former inmates as they're released.
Mr. SAM OFFENBERG (Common Ground): You waiting for someone around here? All right. Have a good one.
SHAPIRO: He's a volunteer with the group Common Ground. At least once a week, he stands here with a stack of questionnaires about life in the prison.
Mr. OFFENBERG: The first answer when I ask how the treatment and conditions are inside the prison, it's usually, it's expletive, expletive, absolutely messed up. It's like worse than any other jail I've ever imagined. That's the standard answer.
SHAPIRO: The prison flooded during the storm two years ago, and you can still see the evidence.
Mr. OFFENBERG: If you walk around this area right now, you can tell that things have not recovered since the flood. There's a building right there that's like fallen down in crumbles. The flood line is still on this building over here - it's on the bricks. You can see where the toxic waste was floating against the bricks.
SHAPIRO: Inmates say they come out with respiratory problems. They describe black mold on the walls. Offenberg says if the reports were isolated or conflicting, he might not believe them. But he hears the same stories from dozens of inmates.
After an hour in the New Orleans sun, nobody has come out who's willing to talk. But at a dinner for the homeless later that evening, several people have had recent experiences in the infamous House of Detention.
Frank Anthony Marrin got out of prison a week ago on a trespassing charge. He says 20 men were kept in cells built for 10. Murderers and drunks were all mixed together. He says there was no air conditioning.
Mr. FRANK ANTHONY MARRIN (Former Inmate): You got to step all on people all on the floor, and it's hot.
SHAPIRO: You're tiptoeing up and down on the ground to show me how you got to step over people.
Mr. MARRIN: Yeah, yeah. Step over people. If you ain't got no mat, you got to lay down on the cold floor.
SHAPIRO: You got just to sleep on the floor?
Mr. MARRIN: Yeah. (Unintelligible) sleeping on the concrete.
SHAPIRO: I can't imagine what it's like with 20 people in a small room with no air conditioning.
Mr. MARRIN: It's funky.
SHAPIRO: You're telling me it smells.
Mr. MARRIN: Oh, man...
SHAPIRO: He says fights broke out regularly. Guards wouldn't intervene. And, Marrin says, there were poisonous spiders.
Mr. OFFENBERG: I got bit.
That's a spider bite from the prison?
Mr. MARRIN: Yes.
Mr. OFFENBERG: You just - because this is radio, people can't see. You just lifted up your shirt and showed me...
Mr. MARRIN: Yeah.
Mr. OFFENBERG: ...it's about the size of a quarter, and it's yellow, and it looks like it's infected.
Mr. MARRIN: Yeah. I'm going to get it go get it checked out now.
SHAPIRO: New Orleans Parish Prison has had problems for a long time. A group of inmates filed a class-action lawsuit against the jail in 1969. Almost 40 years later, that suit still is not resolved. Eric Balaban inherited the case in the late '80s.
Mr. ERIC BALABAN (American Civil Liberties Union): I'm Eric Balaban, a senior staff counsel with the National Prison Project of the ACLU.
SHAPIRO: His group is releasing a report on the Orleans Parish Prison today. It documents many of the same problems uncovered by NPR's investigation - and some that are even worse.
One man in the report went blind because prison guards denied him medication. The report describes a 58-year-old Vietnam vet who was beaten nearly to death by another detainee last month. Balaban says this prison is one of the worst in the country.
Mr. BALABAN: Every responsible jailer will tell you that if there is a complaint that raises these kinds of serious allegations, they should be investigated to the fullest, and the truth should be found.
SHAPIRO: So far there's no evidence that the man in charge of Orleans Parish Prison has done any such investigation.
Mr. BALABAN: The ACLU has requested from the sheriff all documentation regarding independent audits and investigations of conditions. We haven't received a response from the sheriff to date.
SHAPIRO: That mirrors my experience. Sheriff Marlin Gusman runs the prison. I requested a tour of the facility and an interview with Gusman. He refused both requests, even after I described the allegations in detail. It's hard to compare misery, but by all accounts some of the most tragic stories come out of the prison's 10th floor - that's the psychiatric ward.
Ms. HELEN BELL (Tevis Meggs's Grandmother): Tevis Meggs, my grandson. Okay.
SHAPIRO: Helen Bell's grandson is schizophrenic.
Ms. BELL: He was in Parish Prison for about two years.
SHAPIRO: He went there on a drug charge. Behind bars, his condition started getting worse. He heard voices and didn't trust anyone. He thought a chip had been implanted in his stomach. When his grandmother tried to explain that wasn't true, he accused her of plotting against him. Bell went to court to try to force the prison staff to give her grandson better medical treatment.
Ms. BELL: The psychiatrist got up on the stand and testified that they wasn't giving him any kind of medications.
SHAPIRO: She went to the court week after week with no success. Every time, her grandson showed up looking worse and worse. His hair grew long. Once he jumped up and started swearing in court. Eventually, he stopped recognizing his family.
Ms. BELL: He would come in the courtroom as though we wasn't there. He would look at us, but no kind of connection.
SHAPIRO: The judge finally said Bell's grandson could go to a state mental institution when a bed opened up. But since Katrina, there are fewer beds than ever. His name went on a waiting list. In the meantime, he stayed in the prison without medicine.
Unlike many of the stories out of Orleans Parish Prison, this one has a happy ending. A few weeks ago, Helen Bell's grandson was sent to a mental institution in Jackson, Louisiana. He's on medication now. He got his hair cut. He called his grandmother and told her he loves her.
Ms. BELL: He spent two years in prison, and to say today that Tevis is doing fine, words can't - I can't even - I can't - I can't even - it is - it's such a joy. It's such a joy. It's just like somebody in a coma and they wake up.
SHAPIRO: Bell accepts that her grandson needed to spend time in prison. He broke a law.
Ms. BELL: But you don't get them in there and treat them like dogs, like animals. They're still human beings. They're not just a number you put on them. They are people that live and breathe.
SHAPIRO: Helen Bell says some employees at the prison tried to help her grandson, but many others did not. And she doesn't know how they sleep at night.
Ari Shapiro, NPR News, New Orleans.