BY CHUCK CRUMBO
Knight Ridder Newspapers
NEW ORLEANS - (KRT) - When the Orleans Parish Prison was evacuated during Hurricane Katrina, the inmates wore colored armbands that indicated the nature of their offenses. But by the time they arrived at temporary holding facilities scattered throughout the state, some were missing their armbands.
It didn't matter. The state corrections officers receiving the prisoners had no idea what the color codes meant.
The armbands are one example of how Hurricane Katrina and the mass evacuation of 8,500 inmates from prisons in three Louisiana parishes, or counties, threw the state's corrections and court systems into chaos from which they're only beginning to recover.
Records and evidence against some of the prisoners may have been lost or destroyed in the floods. Some people who were picked up on minor offenses or were due to be released from jail just before Katrina hit remain in prison almost five weeks later. Prisoners rights advocates suspect that hundreds of inmates may have died or escaped when the jails were flooded, something that Orleans Parish and state officials deny.
"It's a complete disaster, a complete shutdown of the criminal justice system," said attorney Rachel Jones, who's working with Human Rights Watch, which has interviewed more than 1,000 of the evacuated prisoners.