New Orlean: pre-Katrina arrestees languish in beleaguered court system

Hundreds of people arrested for minor crimes just before Hurricane Katrina washed away New Orleans' court system remain behind bars more than three months later.

A team of volunteer defense lawyers has filed motions to have the arrestees set free. Some have never had a court appearance or been assigned a lawyer, said Rachel Jones, one of the volunteers.

One New Orleans judge has been hearing the cases in a Baton Rouge courtroom, because New Orleans' courthouse is closed indefinitely. Judge Calvin Johnson ordered dozens of the prisoners released Tuesday, including one man who was arrested for public drunkenness Aug. 24 and given a 10-day sentence.

More than 8,000 inmates were evacuated from southeast Louisiana jails before and after Katrina struck Aug. 29, the majority from the New Orleans jail, which was severely flooded.

Many of those prisoners had been convicted and belong behind bars, but defense lawyer Julie Kilborn said roughly 30 percent were incarcerated for misdemeanors and should have been released long ago. Others were sentenced to drug rehabilitation programs, but New Orleans' rehab operations have been out of commission since the storm, so they remain behind bars, she said. Some people arrested immediately after Katrina also faced prolonged jail time.

Three days after the storm, Tammy Williams said she and her two teenage daughters took the advice of New Orleans police officers and got out of the city by catching a ride with a couple driving a U.S. Postal Service vehicle. But when they made it to neighboring Jefferson Parish, they were arrested and accused of stealing the postal truck, she said.

Williams, 46, said the charges against them were eventually dropped, but only after they spent "a miserable 46 days" in three different lockups.

Williams said she and her daughters spent 39 days of those days in the state women's penitentiary near Baton Rouge in solitary cells, maximum security, with just 15 minutes outdoors per day.

Kathy Fontenot, an assistant warden with the state Corrections Department, said she could not immediately confirm that Williams was held in a solitary cell with less than an hour a day outdoors. Jefferson Parish District Attorney Paul Connick's office did not immediately return a call for comment.

Fontenot said the state is still housing over 4,500 prisoners who were evacuated from New Orleans and Jefferson, St. Bernard and Plaquemines parishes, plus people arrested in those parishes immediately after the storm, reported AP. P.T.

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