As looters filled the streets and shots rang out, the city’s overmatched police knew that whatever other endeavors Hurricane Katrina brought to a halt, crime wasn’t one of them.
After being criticized for allowing lawlessness to spiral out of control in the days immediately following the storm, police began arresting people but then ran into a new problem — where to put them. With New Orleans’ jails flooded, a temporary holding facility was set up at the city’s train and bus terminal.
It held only 30 prisoners by Monday, but that number was likely to swell if police from neighboring Jefferson Parish deliver inmates they had held the past few days.
Nearly 8,000 prisoners were transported out of New Orleans jails last week and moved to state prisons and jails in neighboring towns.
“The first guy we housed drove up in a stolen car and wanted to buy a bus ticket,” said Col. Terry Norris of the Louisiana Department of Corrections. “We gave him a bus ticket, just not to the place he wanted to go.”
Behind him, train schedules were still posted on a board. Above the Amtrak counter, the hands of a giant stainless steel clock were frozen at 4:30. Nearby, state prison inmates mopped the floors, stocked medical supplies alongside the Greyhound counter and pushed baggage carts loaded with other goods into storage.
“They dropped three of us off and said, ’Make us a prison,”’ Norris recalled with a rueful shake of his head. He and two other former troopers arrived Saturday morning and had the place open for business at 2 a.m. Monday.
What they did to get here
The temporary jail has a capacity of about 700. The cells behind the terminal are actually open-air cages with chain-link fencing, topped by razor wire, extending from the concrete train platform to an overhang about 15 feet high.
Each cell is identified by a hand-lettered sign — “Cell 1, misdemeanors,” for example — and contains a portable toilet with the door removed.
The prisoners are separated according to crimes. Inside “Cell 3, felony,” some two dozen men milled around. Nearly all had been brought in for looting. Any stolen property valued above $300 was being treated as a felony.
“Believe me, we reviewed every case carefully,” said one corrections department official who asked that she not be identified because of safety concerns. “These are not people who stole food. They stole drugs from pharmacies or TVs from stores.”
The cells set aside for women, as well as those for prisoners facing federal and misdemeanor charges, were empty. Norris said only one prisoner had come through on federal charges, stemming from a shootout with police Sunday.
A dozen others were for misdemeanors — addicts possessing small amounts of drugs or for disturbing the peace. One man had mooned a state police car on patrol.
“We hold ’em a while, and turn ’em loose with a summons,” Norris said.
Asked how many he expected to come back for a court date, he replied, “About half. Maybe.” Then Norris paused and said: “I wonder how many we’ll see in the coming days.”