In a makeshift jail and, for now, bound for nowhere

Published September 13, 2005

NEW ORLEANS - Mac McKaskle wants to do time in a real jail.

Police arrested him in Plaquemine Parish and brought him to the Union Passenger Terminal, a hub for Greyhound buses and Amtrak trains near the city's central business district.

For now, the station serves as the region's only jail.

Charged with possession of stolen goods, McKaskle is one of nearly 300 inmates who have passed through the doors of the city's bus and train terminal. At its entrance, officers taped a cardboard sign that bears this message for would-be lawbreakers: "We are taking New Orleans back."

Claiming unfit living conditions, McKaskle made his case Monday morning for a more traditional lockup.

"It would be fine if they would give us some sort of mat to lie down on," said McKaskle, 51, kneeling on the concrete floor that has been his bed since Saturday. "I feel this is cruel and unusual."

Police officers say McKaskle stole a generator. He says he bought it for $50 from a man who was fleeing the city. Eventually, a court will decide.

For now, McKaskle crouches in part of a former bus stall now called Cell No. 1 and waits for transport to the Hunt Correctional Facility in St. Gabriel, La., so he can begin the process of pleading his case.

State corrections officials asked warden Burl Cain to set up the jail, which opened Sept. 3. Cain heads the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, a maximum security prison that houses some of the state's most notorious prisoners. For the moment, he has named his New Orleans jail Angola South Correctional Center.

It is essential to restoring order in the area, he said.

"The biggest challenge was getting law enforcement to realize we have the jail," Cain said. "So many people didn't know we had the jail ... that they were releasing people that were looters when we had a jail. Without the jail, we couldn't have order."

Until the damaged Orleans Parish jail reopens in about a month, the bus and train station is command central. Prisoners trickle in from surrounding parishes, sometimes by the busload, jail officials said. Corrections officers perform prisoner intake at a makeshift processing center on tables in front of the Amtrak ticket counter.

Once booked, prisoners walk about 10 feet to the station's gift shop, where representatives from the district attorney's office review their cases and determine charges.

Chad Darbonne, operations supervisor at the jail, has set up 16 cells outside underneath a carport that normally serves as open-air bus stalls. Darbonne wrapped the stalls in a chain link fence and topped off each with razor wire.

Inside each stall, prisoners share a water cooler and a portable toilet, which has no roof or door, a move Darbonne said allows full view of prisoners at all times. Corrections officers from Kentucky and New York's Rikers Island keep watch over the prisoners.

Since the makeshift jail opened, the incarcerated have been black and white, children and adults, men and women. Late Monday morning, the jail held six men and a 16-year-old boy.

Cell No. 1 housed McKaskle and four other men charged with felonies. Two napped on the concrete Monday, one using his shoe as a pillow.

The 16-year-old boy lay on the ground in Cell No. 3. He pulled his T-shirt over his head to cover his face. Jail officials said he assaulted a police officer.

Darbonne said the jail conditions are not ideal, but they are far from deplorable. Prisoners get three military meals, Meals Ready to Eat, every day, as well as water.

"We don't treat them like animals," he said. "Some of them are better off in here than they are on the streets."

The warden intends for the jail to be more transport facility than long-term lockup. Darbonne says his staff tries to relocate the inmates to other functioning, traditional jails within 24 hours of their arrival.

So far the bus and train station has held 271 prisoners, most of whom police arrested in nearby Jefferson Parish, jail records show. According to arrest reports, charges range from attempted murder to loitering. Recently police booked a man who was about to board a plane out of New Orleans when a 12-year-old girl spotted him. The man had raped her at a shelter, Cain said.

Looting makes up the majority of Cain's business, jail records show. In the hurricane's aftermath, police arrested people caught taking televisions, appliances, weapons and Oxycontin, Cain said.

He won't allow people arrested for stealing food into his jail.

"That's survival," he said. "We realize that."

But Cain has little sympathy for looters caught with electronics and other nonedible merchandise. He shrugged off McKaskle's plea for more comfortable containment.

"It's despicable," Cain said. "Looters are in the same class as grave robbers."