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A SHATTERED GULF COAST

Evacuated Inmates at One Prison Allege Abuse by Guards

October 02, 2005|Henry Weinstein | Times Staff Writer

Louisiana legislators have asked state officials to investigate charges that prisoners who were evacuated to a rural facility due to Hurricane Katrina are being physically abused by guards. Many of the evacuees have been awaiting trial or are being held on misdemeanor charges.

Spokeswoman Pamela LaBorde of the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections said the agency took the allegations "very seriously" and would send staffers to the north-central Louisiana prison Monday to start an inquiry.

State Rep. Karen R. Carter of New Orleans said in a telephone interview Saturday from Baton Rouge that she had been assured by the head of the Louisiana State Police, Col. Henry Whitehorn, that he would conduct a thorough internal investigation of the situation at Jena.

Carter said she and another legislator called Whitehorn on Friday night and Saturday after getting reports of inmate abuse at Jena. The reports were relayed by Ted Shaw, chief lawyer for the legal defense fund of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People. Shaw was in Louisiana meeting with lawmakers about a host of civil rights concerns after the hurricane.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Monday October 03, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 58 words Type of Material: Correction
Louisiana prison -- An article in Section A on Sunday about inmates' allegations of abuse at a Louisiana prison said Ted Shaw was chief lawyer for the legal defense fund of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People. The name of the organization is the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. It is not part of the NAACP.

Simultaneously, a group of veteran Louisiana defense lawyers has asked the Justice Department to investigate the situation at Jena and to transfer inmates out to protect them.

"The inmates who are now being housed at the Jena facility appear to be in severe and immediate danger of being seriously injured or killed by the guards at that facility," said attorney Phyllis Mann of Alexandria, La., in a statement sent Friday to the Justice Department.

Mann, a leader in the Louisiana Criminal Defense Lawyers Assn., and four other attorneys said they had sent detailed statements to Justice's civil rights division describing interviews they had conducted with hundreds of inmates in recent days at Jena.

The lawyers said the inmates told of being beaten, subjected to racial invective, having their heads rubbed in mace and vomit, and being taunted by guards who told them there was nothing they could do about their treatment because they were living under martial law. A state of emergency -- not martial law -- has been declared in Louisiana.

Maj. Brad Rogers, who is in charge at Jena, had no comment Saturday on the allegations.

Shaw, the NAACP lawyer, who heard about Jena from Mann, said that if the inmates' allegations were true, "this is an extraordinarily serious violation of constitutional civil rights."

The defense attorneys who interviewed inmates individually at Jena in recent days said the stories seemed credible. "The stories the inmates related to me were very consistent and very disturbing," said David Park, an attorney with the Innocence Project of New Orleans.

Christine Lehman of the Louisiana Crisis Assistance Center interviewed prisoners for two days last week. "Of all the inmates I interviewed ... almost all said that they had been physically abused themselves or had seen others physically abused."

Mann, who has visited evacuated inmates at several prisons, said a number expressed disgruntlement about issues including an inability to reach family members. However, she said, Jena was the only facility where serious abuse was alleged.

She and the other defense lawyers said they saw evidence of beatings and abuse -- such as swollen eyes, bruised heads, welts and deep handcuff marks.

Mann said she had been unaware that Jena was in use until Sept. 20, when inmates at a prison in Winn told her about it. She was participating in an effort by the Defense Lawyers Assn. to locate the 8,500 inmates from New Orleans and the surrounding parishes who had been taken to 38 facilities around the state after Katrina.

At the Winn prison, Mann said, she met nearly two dozen men who had been moved there from Jena and "a frightening narrative began to emerge." The spokeswoman for the Department of Corrections said that 60 prisoners were moved to Winn on Sept. 2 after "an inmate disturbance" at Jena.

Mann received permission from state officials to send attorneys to Jena on Tuesday.

Attorney Rachel I. Jones, who interviewed more than 100 inmates, said many asked her whether they had any rights under the "martial law" that Jena officials had allegedly told them was in effect.

Jones said the vast majority of those evacuated from the Jefferson Parish Correctional Center to Jena were pre-trial detainees. Dozens are being held on municipal charges, such as public intoxication, attachments for failure to pay court fees and minor traffic violations. Many are being held on misdemeanor charges, past their predetermined release dates, or on charges never accepted by a district attorney.

Some inmates "slipped desperate notes into my hand," she said.

A Justice Department spokesman in Washington said he did not know whether any department official had received the Louisiana lawyers' reports.

For many years, Jena was used to house juveniles, but the facility was closed in 2000 after a federal lawsuit revealed serious abuse of the youths kept there.

LaBorde said the facility was being used now because of the emergency and was staffed by Louisiana corrections officials and volunteers from other states.

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