[Readings] Hell or High Water, By Harper's Staff | Harper's Magazine

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[Readings]

Hell or High Water

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From interviews with teenagers incarcerated at Orleans Parish Prison during Hurricane Katrina, conducted last winter by the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana. In May the group released Treated like Trash, a report on juvenile detention in New Orleans before, during, and after the storm. The approximately 150 juveniles in Orleans Parish Prison when the hurricane struck were evacuated to other prisons in Louisiana several days after the city was flooded.

Me and J. were the first to get out of our cells. We had to break through windows and burn down doors to find food and water. After we found some, we returned to our dorm, gave it to the others, and began helping them get out of their cells. It took us a whole day to break down one cell. Some inmates were breaking through the walls and jumping from the third floor. As soon as they hit the water, the deputies began to shoot at them.

—R.M., age seventeen

I was moved to a gym with several hundred inmates, though its total capacity was a little over fifty people. We lived like sardines for four days without food or water, and there was no power or phones, so we couldn’t talk to our families. All the deputies left on the second day, and soon the gym was filled with waste up to our chests. But we freed ourselves from the gym by breaking the windows and walls. I didn’t see another deputy until we were rescued at gunpoint. A few inmates were shot and tazed.

There was no reason to leave us in the prison when the rest of the city was being evacuated. The guards treated us with the humanity you would give to a dog. I need some psychiatric help because this shit is really doing a deal on me.

—D.F., seventeen

Guards did nothing to protect us. The older kids lined up the younger kids and dunked them in the water, like it was a game. There was piss and shit in the water. I got a bloody nose, a swollen eye, and a busted lip from getting beat up.

After two days, a guard lined us up two by two and took us to the fish ponds. The water was up to our bellies outside the jail. We climbed up to a place where the water was only up to our ankles. We waited two days out there with five guards and about ninety adult prisoners, who weren’t shackled or cuffed like the kids. We slept on boards and couldn’t really sleep at all. The water and food was stolen by the adults—they got cold wieners and power drinks that were supposed to go to us. The first food we got was on our second day outside—two pieces of bread.

When we got on the boat to go to the bridge, there was food floating in the water and we tried to catch it and eat it—that’s how hungry we were. The guards on the bridge had dogs, and some inmates who got bit started jumping off the bridge. One dude passed out without medical attention. My feet turned all white, with mildew on them. I was throwing up blood.

—E.F., fifteen

After four days, we were shipped to Hunts and put in a yard. They said we were going to have to sleep in the yard until they made room. We sat out there for about an hour before it started raining. There were over 7,000 men in that yard, and a lot of them were enemies. People were getting jumped and stabbed, and all the deputies said was don’t come out the gate or they would shoot you with a beanbag gun. We slept that night in the rain and mud. Ants and other bugs were biting you. It was the worst experience of my life.

—R.M.

We were alone in the floodwater for three days. My cellmate was a diabetic, and he died on the top bunk. We had human feces floating around in the water. I still have little sores from it, and I can’t seem to get that smell out of my skin. Maybe it’s all in my head, but that smell will be with me for a very long time, until I am dead and gone.

—C.S., fifteen


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