Lessons from Hurricane Katrina: Prison Emergency Preparedness as a Constitutional Imperative

70 Pages Posted: 17 Nov 2008 Last revised: 17 Dec 2008

See all articles by Ira P. Robbins

Ira P. Robbins

American University - Washington College of Law

Date Written: November 13, 2008


Hurricane Katrina was one of the worst natural disasters ever to strike the United States, in terms of casualties, suffering, and financial cost. Often overlooked among Katrina's victims are the 8,000 inmates who were incarcerated at Orleans Parish Prison (OPP) when Katrina struck. Despite a mandatory evacuation of New Orleans, these men and women, some of whom had been held on charges as insignificant as public intoxication, remained in the jail as the hurricane hit, and endured days of rising, toxic waters, a lack of food and drinking water, and a complete breakdown of order within OPP. When the inmates were finally evacuated from OPP, they suffered further harm, waiting for days on a highway overpass before being placed in other correctional institutions, where prisoners withstood exposure to the late-summer Louisiana heat and beatings at the hands of guards and other inmates. Finally, even as the prison situation settled down, inmates from the New Orleans criminal justice system were marooned in correctional institutions throughout the state, as the judicial system in New Orleans ceased to function.

The resulting effects were both tragic and unconstitutional, as the suffering at OPP could have been prevented. This Article asserts that prison administrators have a constitutional duty to plan for emergencies, and argues that the failures of New Orleans officials to do so violated prisoners' Sixth and Eighth Amendment rights, as well as internationally recognized human rights standards. With the wealth of training and planning materials available to prison officials and the knowledge of possible emergencies, it is unconscionable for prisons to have nonexistent or inadequate plans. Assessing change through litigation and legislation, this Article advocates a mixed approach, using judicial and legislative remedies for the abhorrent violations of well-established prisoners' rights. The Article recommends that states develop mechanisms, such as emergency courts, to enable the administration of justice to resume promptly following serious natural or man-made disasters. Prisons and courts should internalize the lessons of Hurricane Katrina, which demonstrated the consequences of inadequate preparation and planning for prisoners' safety during and after a major emergency.

Keywords: Hurricane Katrina, prison emergency, natural disaster, man-made disaster, Sixth Amendment, effective assistance of counsel, Eighth Amendment, cruel and unusual punishment, deliberate indifference, emergency preparedness, emergency plan, Orleans Parish Prison, international human rights

JEL Classification: K14, K19, K30, K39, K40, K41, K42, K49

Suggested Citation

Robbins, Ira P., Lessons from Hurricane Katrina: Prison Emergency Preparedness as a Constitutional Imperative (November 13, 2008). University of Michigan Journal of Law Reform, Vol. 42, No. 1, 2008, American University, WCL Research Paper No. 2008-68, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1300971

Ira P. Robbins (Contact Author)

American University - Washington College of Law ( email )

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