This is the first in a three part series looking at Orleans Parish Prison (OPP) and its treatment of inmates. Amid accusations of violence, intimidation and unsanitary conditions, the Department of Justice opened an investigation into Orleans Parish, citing several issues. Mistreatment of inmates was one of them. The men featured in this series were both tourist, coming to New Orleans for the first time to experience the city’s culture and diversity. Their experiences have left an impression of New Orleans littered with fear and resentment. At the request of the interviewees, their names have been changed. They fear recourse for speaking candidly about their experiences.
Many images of New Orleans draw in people from around the world: the pastel buildings of the French Quarter, the mansions of St. Charles Avenue, the costume-clad at Mardi Gras, the crowds celebrating everything and nothing at all on Bourbon Street and even the images of destruction left behind from Hurricane Katrina. Wanting to experience these things themselves, even if just to say they have been there and had fallen in love, tourist surge the city, taking it all in and leaving a bit of themselves here when they go. A place synonymous with great food, great music and even greater culture – New Orleans seduces people, drawing them in, placing a spell on them, making it impossible to forget.
For Derek Anderson, a man who came to New Orleans with his family on their annual vacation, New Orleans has become impossible to forget for other reasons. Anderson had never been to New Orleans before his visit in late 2008. In his youth, he had dreams of moving there, writing where his literary hero, William Faulkner, once wrote. A trumpet player, his hope was to experience seeing the great brass play, maybe one day joining them on stage. Life interrupted those dreams and the best he was able to do was visit for a few days in the winter when his Ohio home was blanketed in snow.
Out on Bourbon Street, wandering the street alone and reveling in the party atmosphere, a karaoke performance caught his attention from the sidewalks. Stopping to watch and listen, when the act finished the final note, he applauded, clapping his hands and cheering along with the rest of the crowd inside. Soon he had officers from the New Orleans police department surrounding him, informing him that he was under arrest on charges of animal cruelty. How could the act of applauding for a karaoke act lead to charges of animal cruelty? Four feet from where he was standing, stood the mounted patrol seen riding through Bourbon Street. According to the police, his applause was an attempt to harass the NOPD horse.
Anderson had never been arrested before and the closet thing he had experienced to a jail cell was on a tour of the local jail with his son’s third grade class. He was taken to Orleans Parish Prison, where processing him took Orleans Parish Prison staff fourteen hours.
“Staff members knew they had the upper-hand and they were not concerned at all with doing their jobs. They spent more time hanging out with one another than working.” Anderson said.
Once processed, he was placed inside the fish tank, a large room with long wooden benches. In here, he was among drug dealers, violent offenders and gang members. A far cry from his quiet life in Ohio, Anderson began regretting his decision to come to New Orleans. He vows to never visit again.
“From the police to the deputies at OPP, it was a nightmare. I always laughed at people when they worried about police states because I am so far removed from that type of life. It just isn’t a reality to me. After what I experience that weekend, I am afraid of New Orleans. OPP was dirty and grimy. When I was in the fish tank, they threw in sandwiches to feed us. If you got one, you gone one: if you didn’t, you didn’t. People were detoxing off of drugs. It was like living in the [HBO] television series, Oz.”
The second night of his stay, he asked the deputy if he could attempt to make his phone call again before they placed in him a six-man cell, which would actually house ten. The deputy allowed it, pulling Anderson out of the fish tank and having him take a seat. Time passed while he waited to place his call, until a deputy passed him and he inquired again. He was shoved to the phone and told to make it quick. A kind female deputy helped him find the phone number for his hotel, however his wife was not in. He was unable to reach her through her cell phone, it being registered with a long-distance phone number.
When he pleaded with deputies to help him get in contact with her, he was warned if he didn’t settle down, there would be consequences to pay. He asked about using one of their cell phones, just so she could know where he was and that he was ok. He received a slap across the face. and was taunted, with deputies exhibiting their dominance over him with physical violence and verbal assaults. Anderson fought back tears as he was slapped, kicked and called names. He was just hoping for this nightmare to come to an end.
After enduring what he called a legalized hazing at the hands of prison staff and other inmates, he went to court on Monday and was released by the judge. He would face no charges. He counted the minutes eagerly, awaiting his release. Ten hours after the judge ordered his freedom, staff from Orleans Parish Prison finally unshackled him and showed him the door. When he returned to his hotel room in the French Quarter, his wife was horrified by the bruising and his face. She urged him to contact the proper authorities and file a formal complaint. He refused.
“I was not going to risk angering another NOPD officer and being sent to that hell again. It breaks my heart. New Orleans was always a special place for me and now, if I never come back, it will be too soon.”
His wife, Jaime, shares in his ill feelings towards the city.
“I actually called the police department and received no help at all. I was transferred from one person to another person, told to call other numbers, and was treated with complete disregard. I cannot believe what was to have been a fun, family vacation turned into this.”