BATON ROUGE, La.- The New Orleans sheriff on Wednesday disputed allegations from a human rights group that inmate corpses were floating in the city jail after Hurricane Katrina and that prisoners were left for days without food or drinking water in cells where the floodwaters were chest-high.
Human Rights Watch has asked the U.S. Justice Department to investigate treatment of prisoners in the jail, accusing Sheriff Marlon Gusman of abandoning inmates in ground-level cells, unattended by guards, as the floodwaters rose.
The group cited interviews with inmates who said they saw floating corpses and were left for four days in darkness, without food, drinking water, air conditioning or working toilets.
The sheriff said no one died in the jail after the storm. And the state Department of Health and Hospitals said there have been no reports of corpses found in the jail.
Gusman also said inmates had plenty of food and drinking water throughout the three days of evacuations. He called the allegations "fiction" from disgruntled inmates.
"They're in jail, man. They lie," Gusman said. "They went and made up a bunch of stories. It's crazy."
Gusman said the jail initially suffered little damage from the Aug. 29 storm. He said he decided that night to evacuate all prisoners as floodwaters began to rise because of levee breaks.
Evacuations began the next day, and within three days all the jail's roughly 6,000 prisoners were transported in boats to buses, then taken to local and state jails around Louisiana, Gusman said.
Separately, Human Rights Watch and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund also asked the Justice Department to investigate prisoners' allegations that they were beaten by guards and subjected to racial slurs after they were evacuated from several New Orleans-area lockups to a former juvenile prison in the town of Jena. One inmate said he was forced to lick his own blood off the floor.
A spokeswoman for Louisiana's prisons department, Pam LaBorde, said the agency's preliminary investigation found no substantiated reports of abuse.
LaBorde said the investigation concerned an incident Sept. 2 at the Jena prison, in which inmates demanding the right to smoke and use telephones began yelling and beating on windows, and threatened to burn the building down.
She said guards armed with a chemical agent and electric anti-riot shields were sent in to subdue the inmates, who were then transferred to a state prison 40 miles away.
The rights groups said that incident corresponds to one that has generated scores of complaints from prisoners, who said they were forced to kneel or lie on the concrete floor for up to eight hours, motionless, and were beaten if they moved.
Justice Department spokesman Eric Holland said Wednesday he was unaware of any allegations involving the New Orleans jail. He said the department is looking into the Jena allegations "to see if there's enough there to conduct an investigation."