Left to Die: States Fail to Evacuate Prisons During Hurricanes
“We do not want to risk one life in [Hurricane Florence].” Those were the words of Henry McMaster, the South Carolina Governor, as he issued a mandatory evacuation order over the coast. In September 2018, over one million people were under mandatory evacuation orders in South and North Carolina, and in parts of Virginia. The orders came as a result of Florence, a category three hurricane.
Despite the widespread pleads from government officials asking residents in danger zones to evacuate, the South Carolina Department of Corrections decided not to evacuate the prisons. Prisoners were left locked in their cells with little resources and no communication. Correctional officers confirmed to have refused to allow prisoners to store water bottles and buckets in their cells, deeming it to be contraband.
South Carolina is not the first state that has decided against evacuating prisons during possibly disastrous hurricanes. During Hurricane Katrina, correctional officers at the Orleans Parish Prison Compound left 600 inmates on their own without any food or water. A few days after, the generators died, which meant that not only did they not have electricity, but the air has stopped circulating. For days they had to live with the unbearable stench created by the backed-up toilets. The inmates were not evacuated until four days later, after flood waters in the jail had reached chest-level. Some inmates at the prison remember the scared screams of inmates locked in ground-level cells who believed they would drown, others recall seeing dead bodies floating in the floodwaters. The prisoners were ultimately evacuated and transferred by boat to correctional facilities outside of New Orleans.
Puerto Rico is still reeling from the devastating category 5 Hurricane, Maria, that hit the island in September 2017. They were left without power and other basic resources for months, and their prisons were no exception. Aside from the shortage of food, unhygienic conditions, and lack of reliable communication, Puerto Rican prisons also experienced mass escapes due to the natural disaster. The Bayamón complex near San Juan, which can house over 3,500 prisoners and is the second biggest prison facility on the island, had thirteen prisoners escape after the hurricane destroyed parts of the prison. Seven other prisoners escaped from another facility in the island.
During Hurricane Irma, a correctional facility in Miami-Dade County, Florida decided to try a different strategy. Rather than evacuating the inmates, officials brought in more guards. The guards that were trapped along with the prisoners, said that the cells were covered in urine, feces, and mold. They were left with no power and little food. After the hurricane, the guards filed complaints, arguing that it was inhumane for prison officials to leave the guards in the prison during the hurricane. The prisoners, however, are not able to advocate for themselves as easily.
Few people are as powerless during hurricanes, as prisoners. Inmates are at the mercy of guards and the administration. Prison officials often refute the claims that the conditions have been inappropriate. In determining whether to evacuate a prison, administrators balance the safety of the inmates against the safety of the public. It seems that, with few precautionary measures, both interests could be preserved.
A reporter for CNN compared the compassion shown to zoo animals with the indifference people have shown to the men and women held captive in correctional facilities. The animals were promptly evacuated and moved to safety when people realized that they could not get out of harm’s way on their own, while the individuals in prisons are locked in unsafe structures with little to no resources.
Generally, prison officials have expressed concerns about the challenges that evacuating prisons present. The process to evacuate prisons can be costly and logistically challenging. Some officials fear the issues that may arise from having buses full of dangerous inmates on the same routes that other citizens are using to leave at risk areas. The fact that prisons are understaffed and overcrowded, also becomes a huge factor in administrator’s decision not to evacuate. After the hurricane passes, prisons have had to transfer inmates from nearly destroyed facilities, which has ultimately cost tax payers millions of dollars.
The living conditions reported in prisons during hurricanes may also have unconstitutional implications. Many believe that the less than ideal conditions violate the inmates’ Eight Amendment rights against cruel and unusual punishment.
In Texas, both Hurricane Harvey and Irma left prisoners stuck in dismal conditions. In Hurricane Harvey, 3,000 men were stuck inside a State prison with no food, clean drinking, water, and overflowing toilets. Days even after the hurricane had passed, they remained inside in 100-degree weather. After suffering through similar conditions during Hurricane Ike, prisoners filed suit, claiming that these circumstances violated their Eight Amendment rights. However, their lawsuits were promptly dismissed.
As a country we are failing citizens who are at the mercy of prison officials. Though they are in prison, they are still human beings with constitutional guarantees. 42 U.S.C.S. § 1983 gives inmates the ability to bring suit for monetary damages and injunctive and declaratory relief when they believe that their Eighth Amendment rights have been violated by prison officials. Inmates should be presented the opportunity to readily sue for injunctive relief prompting prisons to change their policies and preparedness plans.
The Federal Bureau of Prisons has not done much to alleviate for this issue. The solution can be as simple as creating a comprehensive emergency preparedness plan for prisons. Having a nation-wide plan in place, including training programs, will remove the discretion from state prison officials in deciding whether to evacuate prisons.
The decision of state and prison officials to leave individuals locked in correctional facilities with unsanitary conditions and nearly no resources is inhumane. As hurricanes become more common and catastrophic, states need to make a greater effort to evacuate all citizens to safety.