With thousands of criminal cases already backlogged due to COVID-related court delays and jury trials put on hold for over a year, the criminal justice system in New Orleans now faces a whole new set of challenges and uncertainties after Hurricane Ida devastated the city on Sunday — including tearing off portions of the roof of Municipal and Traffic Court. 

Meanwhile, conditions at a number of local jails in parishes that were severely impacted by the storm remain a question. 

Prior to Ida’s arrival on Sunday afternoon, around 2,500 people incarcerated at local jails in the way of the storm were transferred to state prisons and other jails throughout the state. Among them were hundreds of detainees awaiting trial in New Orleans, nearly all of whom were transferred several hours away to the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. 

It is unclear exactly when those detainees will be returning to New Orleans. On Monday, Blake Arcuri, a lawyer for the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office, said that they would be transferred back as soon as possible when the road conditions allowed for safe transportation into the city.

He also said that new arrestees were now being booked into the jail in New Orleans.  At a Monday press conference, New Orleans Police Department Chief Shaun Ferguson said that police officers had made several arrests since the storm hit, but it was unclear exactly how many. Arcuri was unable to provide a number. 

On Friday, the Louisiana Supreme Court ordered a large number of local courts, including Orleans Parish Criminal District Court, to close on Monday. Further closure orders beyond Monday were not posted on the court’s website as of Tuesday morning. 

In an interview, Danny Engleberg, chief of trials for the Orleans Public Defenders office, said he was worried about whether detainees who had been transferred to Angola would be able to bond out and if they would be provided transportation. The public defenders also remain concerned about the recent surge in COVID cases and the difficulty of containing infections in a jail or prison. He urged the NOPD to limit booking people into the jail. 

“In most cases, new arrests should not be booked,” Engelberg said. “They should be just given a date to return to court, rather than going into a jail or prison situation that has both a public health emergency and all sorts of logistical challenges to being released.”

He said first appearances for people recently arrested would continue to take place daily via videoconference.

Jail conditions uncertain

A number of other parish jails — including jails in Plaquemines, Acadia, St. Mary, Vermillion, Terrebonne, and St. Bernard parishes — also evacuated their detainee populations to other state and local facilities prior to the storm. But some facilities in parishes badly impacted by the storm did not evacuate.

Around 1,100 detainees remained in the Jefferson Parish Correctional Center in Gretna during the hurricane. The Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office did not respond to inquiries from The Lens on Monday regarding the conditions of the facility or whether or not detainees would be evacuated.

But at a press conference, Sheriff Joe Lopinto warned that “my jail is still open and taking reservations if you need it.” He did not say whether the facility sustained any damage. 

Outside of the jail, thousands of residents in the parish are without running water or power, and parish officials are working on a plan to bus people out of the area

Sheriff’s office representatives in St. Charles Parish and St. John the Baptist Parish — neither of which evacuated their jails for Ida, and both of which were hit badly by the storm — were not able to be reached on Monday regarding jail conditions. The St. Charles jail, located in Killona, had 382 people incarcerated there prior to the storm, according to a jail roster posted online. 

“There’s probably some damage to nearly every structure in the parish,” said St.Charles Parish President Matthew Jewel, according to The Times-Picayune/New Orleans Advocate

LaPlace — where the St. John Parish jail had around 60 detainees incarcerated prior to the hurricane —  experienced devastating flooding, with some residents forced to hide in their attics as the water rose. 

In Lafourche Parish, around 600 detainees remained locked up in the local jail in Thibodoux through the storm. On Monday, Captain Brennan Matherne, a spokesperson for the Lafourche Parish Sheriff’s Office, said that the facility sustained “minimal damage” and that it was running on generator power. 

“The facility itself had really no issues,” he said. 

Chief Judge of Criminal District Court, Karen Herman, said that she was waiting to hear from the Louisiana Supreme Court to decide how Criminal Court would proceed in the coming days and weeks. She said that she expected to receive an update either later Monday evening or Tuesday morning.

In Jefferson Parish, the courts are closed until Tuesday, September 7, according to Deputy Chief Public Defender Paul Fleming, though he said he thought the timeline seemed “optimistic.” 

When things may resume at Municipal and Traffic Court in New Orleans is a whole other question. The roof was blown off the building during the storm, according to Chief Judge Sean Early.

WWL-TV first reported the damage on Sunday evening. 

Early said on Monday that he was still assessing the damage to the court building, which he has yet to walk through, but that it did not look promising. 

“I can tell you this, from the outside, a significant part of the roof is gone,” he said. “It looks like it’s toast.”

Nicholas Chrastil

Nicholas Chrastil covers criminal justice for The Lens. As a freelancer, his work has appeared in Slate, Undark, Mother Jones, and the Atavist, among other outlets. Chrastil has a master's degree in mass...