Many New Orleanians don’t consider a Category 2 hurricane, which can bring winds of up to 110 mph, powerful or dangerous enough to leave town. But for the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office, that is the trigger for a mass evacuation of its jail, the Orleans Justice Center.

Once a Category 2 or greater is confirmed to be headed toward the region, the Sheriff’s Office will activate the initial stages of its emergency operations plan 84 hours before the first band of tropical winds are expected to hit the city, said Silas Phipps, interim compliance manager for Sheriff Susan Hutson. At that point, all staff members will be assigned rotating 12-hour shifts to prepare for the possibility of loading the jail’s residents into vans and buses for transport to the Louisiana State Penitentiary, otherwise known as Angola.

The goal is to have the facility emptied at least 30 hours before a storm makes landfall. 

The Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office has not always taken such a cautious approach to protecting the people in its care. In 2005, as Hurricane Katrina approached the city, then-Sheriff Marlin Gusman chose not to evacuate.

“The prisoners will stay where they belong,” Gusman announced when questioned about how his administration would respond to the storm.

In the aftermath of Katrina, the city’s jail quickly lost power and was inundated, leaving inmates stuck inside waiting to be evacuated, a process that took several days. Inmates were initially taken to the Broad Street overpass several blocks from the jail, and sat in rows in the sweltering heat waiting for buses that would take them out of town. According to a report by the ACLU, many said they went days without food or water after the storm, a claim that Gusman denied at the time.

The Sheriff’s Office, which has been under a federal consent decree since 2013, has since evacuated its facilities prior to major storms making landfall. 

YouTube video
Video by Nigell Moses/Verite News.

Last week, in preparation for such an event, Hutson hosted a mock evacuation drill — processing inmates, giving them food and water and placing them onto buses. 

“We want the public to know that the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office is taking the safety of our city, our staff and the residents of this jail very seriously,” Hutson told reporters during the event. 

How it will work

Given the jail’s complex population — the total of which was just under 1,100 as of late last week — the evacuation will be done in phases based on the specific needs of each group, Phipps said.

The first to go will be those in the “special population” which includes residents with acute mental health needs (18 people as of earlier this month), on suicide watch (7), in protective custody (25) or being held in disciplinary segregation (29).

Those in protective custody are residents who require special protection and can include members of the LGBTQ+ community or people who are witnesses to a crime and have agreed to testify, for example. Inmates are placed in disciplinary segregation after violating jail policies. They will be transported separately from the general populations, so they don’t cause problems on the buses, Phipps said.

The entire evacuation, if all goes according to plan, should be completed in 20 hours.

Not everyone in the jail will be evacuated. Some will be released.

Phipps said there is a standing order from criminal court to release those who are being held on low-level, non-violent, and non-domestic offenses. These include: contempt of court, defendants held for positive drug tests with a bond in effect, misdemeanor pre-trial detainees and those held for failure to pay fines and fees.

The sheriff’s decision on when to bring the residents back will depend on the available resources within the city.

“Are we still on generator power? Do we have full power in the area? Are there concerns getting from the evacuation location?” Phipps said. “It just depends on if everything is in place that we need to get them back safely and ensure that we’re not going to have to turn around and re-evacuate them.”

The last time the jail was evacuated was in August 2021 for Hurricane Ida. Inmates who were sent to the Louisiana State Penitentiary criticized the conditions they were held in at the prison, saying the facilities there were “dirty and unsafe” and that they were subjected to neglect and violence, according to a WWNO report.

Gusman, the sheriff at the time, was defeated in a reelection bid four months later by Hutson.

Hutson’s chief communications officer, Casey McGee, said the office has initiated “discussions with the (Louisiana Department of Public Safety & Corrections) to inquire about where our residents would be housed” in the event of a hurricane evacuation. 

The Sheriff’s Office “will be requesting an opportunity to visit and assess the current conditions,” McGee said. “We will also be increasing the number of staff assigned to the Angola facility to ensure residents have access to outdoor recreation and shower facilities when possible.”

Nigell Moses contributed to this report.

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Before coming to Verite, Richard A. Webster spent the past two and a half years as a member of ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network. He investigated allegations of abuse against the Jefferson Parish...