The last time Amanda Relle talked to her close friend incarcerated at Jefferson Parish Correctional Center was Sunday afternoon as Hurricane Ida was beginning to bear down on the New Orleans metro area. Conditions, her friend — who she asked to remain anonymous, for fear of retaliation — told her, were already beginning to deteriorate. 

“Sewage was dripping down into the dorm when I last talked to her,” Relle said. 

Around a half-dozen other jails in the storm’s path evacuated in the days before the storm hit — including the Orleans Justice Center, where detainees were transferred several hours away to Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. But Jefferson Parish Sheriff Joe Lopinto decided not to evacuate the more than 1,100 people incarcerated at his facility in Gretna. 

Hurricane Ida ended up devastating the parish, knocking out power and running water for thousands of residents. Shortly after the storm, parish officials began working on a plan to bus people out. 

Relle has been unable to reach her friend since. 

The decision not to empty a jail in advance of a powerful hurricane has led to disastrous outcomes in the past. Following Hurricane Katrina in 2005, people incarcerated at the Orleans Parish Prison — which Sheriff Marlin Gusman chose not to evacuate prior to the storm — were trapped for days in a dark, flooded jail, with scarce food or water. There were reports of cell doors being stuck shut, deputies abandoning their posts, and a lack of medical care as water rose to chest-height. 

In the days leading up to Ida, and even as it made landfall, it wasn’t clear the storm would cause the degree of destruction that it did in the New Orleans metro area, with the storm taking a more easterly path than was predicted, taking it closer to the city. Ida proved not to be the flooding event that Katrina was in New Orleans or Jefferson Parish. But with supplies for basic needs scarce for much of the Gulf Coast, people with incarcerated family members and loved ones in facilities impacted by the storm worry about the conditions they are facing. 

When she’s made calls to the jail, Relle has been told that detainees weren’t being allowed to use the phone. 

“Some of the guards have said that they’re in lockdown, and they’re fine,” Relle said. “Some other guards have said that they weren’t locked down, but they were fine, and trust them, they were safer inside than outside, and that they had absolutely everything that they needed. And not to worry. They just weren’t letting them use the phone yet.”

Those assurances are not convincing to Relle.

“I feel like they’re not letting them use the phone because they don’t want any of them to report what’s happening,” she said. 

A representative for the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office and the administrator of Jefferson Parish Correctional Center did not return multiple calls from The Lens.  

At a press conference earlier this week, Lopinto did not provide an update on the conditions at the jail, but in a warning to looters said that the facility was “open and taking reservations if you need it.”

“It’s a joke to him,” Relle said. “These are human lives. I don’t care what anybody in there did — I really don’t. There is no acceptable excuse for the treatment they’re receiving.”  

Relle said her friend told her that tensions at the facility were already high by the time the storm came through.  On the morning of the storm, they were not let out of their cells for breakfast because not enough guards had shown up for work. (One of the reasons for evacuating the New Orleans jail, a lawyer for the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office told The Lens prior to the storm, was a concern that the Sheriff’s Office would not have enough available staff.)

Prior to being placed in lockdown in her cell for the storm, Relle said her friend told her, she filled up several cups of water, in case it wasn’t available afterward. But she said she was not allowed to keep the water. 

“They told her it was contraband and made her pour it out,” Relle said. “Water is contraband.”

Given her friend’s previous accounts of the general state of the jail, Relle assumes that the present circumstances are dire. 

“The conditions on the best day are horrific,” Relle said. “The situation they’re in right now — how much worse can it possibly get?”

‘People can’t check on their family’

Like Relle with her friend in Jefferson Parish’s jail, Sadadra Davis hasn’t spoken to her husband — who is incarcerated at Nelson Coleman Correctional Center in St. Charles Parish — since Sunday afternoon.

“Basically he was saying how the roof sounded like it was slamming,”  she told The Lens. “He had me listen, and from the wind it just sounded like the roof was just slamming.”

On Friday, St. Charles parish issued a mandatory evacuation for residents of the parish. The order went into effect Saturday morning. But more than 300 people incarcerated in the Killona jail remained. 

Now, Sadadra is struggling to reach her husband, or get any update from parish officials regarding the conditions in the facility. 

“I’ve been emailing the mayor, the sheriff, the correction person over the jail,” she told The Lens on Thursday. “I haven’t received emails back from no one.” 

She said that she is considering driving down from Lafayette to see if showing up in person will provide more answers. 

The small bit of information she was able to get regarding the facility came on Wednesday evening, when Gov. John Bel Edwards visited St. Charles Parish and held a press conference with Sheriff Greg Champagne.

Like Lopinto in Jefferson Parish, Champagne only briefly mentioned the jail in a warning to would-be criminals.

“The jail has space,” he said. “And actually it has some air conditioning, believe it or not. So if you want to commit a crime — don’t do it, ‘cause we might put you in a unit that doesn’t have air conditioning. But we do have space. There is room at the inn.”

Davis didn’t appreciate the sheriff threatening to put people in jail while not providing updates to family members of those already incarcerated. 

“For them not to just give some updates, just to say, ‘I know you have family that were that’s incarcerated’ — they ain’t give us no updates on that,” Davis said. 

Alesiá Richards’ husband is also incarcerated at Nelson Coleman, and like Davis, she has been unable to reach him. She too was frustrated by the lack of information being shared by the Sheriff’s office. 

“They need to get it together,” she said, “because people can’t check on their family. And they’re not trying to reach out or anything.”

In an email to The Lens Thursday evening, Champagne said with phone lines down, detainees and prisoners at the jail were unable to make phone calls or send emails, and that his office just got email service on Thursday. 

“Communication has been extremely difficult for us,” he said. But he told The Lens that conditions at the jail were better than many other places throughout the parish.

“Our correctional center has been on generator power since the storm and has never lost power,” Champagne wrote. “The jail is and has been fully air conditioned — no damage. Inmates are comfortable and well fed. … In fact I personally visited with some  inmates yesterday and advised them that getting 3 hot meals and AC is much better conditions than the overwhelming majority of our citizens.”

Fen Swann, the Chief Public Defender for St. Charles Parish, said that he visited the jail on Friday afternoon and confirmed that the facility had power, air conditioning, and the medical needs of incarcerated people were being met. 

In a Friday afternoon Facebook post, Champagne said that “false rumors” had begun to circulate regarding conditions at the jail, and that they were untrue.

“The lack of phone service prevented them from calling families so naturally rumors began,” he said.  

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...