“Staying Put” Isn’t Acceptable Hurricane Evacuation Policy
Especially when prisons have a notorious record of putting their inmates in harm’s way
By: Becca Most
Last September, as Hurricane Florence battered the coasts of North and South Carolina, South Carolina governor, Henry McMaster, issued a mandatory evacuation of residents in the path of the storm. He urged people to take the hurricane seriously as the storm was predicted to bring more damage than South Carolinians had seen in a long time.
“If you’re in a low-lying area you need to leave and go somewhere else until this is over,” McMaster saidin a press conference. “We are not going to gamble with the lives of the people of South Carolina. Not a one.”
While many residents had both the opportunity and the ability to flee, one group was forced to remain where they were. Despite mandatory evacuations, the South Carolina Department of Corrections refusedto relocate several prisons within counties under “life threatening” risk by the storm.
This practice is not something new. South Carolina has not evacuated any of its prisons for a storm since 1999. Prison officials saythat having inmates remain in their facilities is safer than relocating them to a new holding area. But the reality is that relocating inmates is an expensive and time-consuming process many prisons just don’t want to deal with.
This raises an ethical dilemma. When prisons choose not to evacuate their prisoners, what are they saying about the value of those prisoners’ lives?
If we see the transportation of prisoners as a cost, we dehumanize people that have already been labeled secondary citizens by society. Rather than regarding them as complex individuals with emotions, families, and aspirations, the prison’s defense likens them to numbers in a budget.
Daniel A. Gross, a writer for the New Yorker, interviewedan inmate in a South Carolina maximum security prison that had not been evacuated during Hurricane Florence. Gross noted that at the time of the interview over a million people had already fled the hurricane, including hospitalized patients and staff on military bases, which don’t normally relocate for a storm.
The prisoner, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, recounted the feeling of dread that came over him as water rushed into his locked cell and swelled over his ankles. His shouts and pleas to correctional officers went unanswered, and he was only released from his cell when fellow inmates started to scream, “Tell my kids I love them.”
Intentionally choosing to ignore mandatory evacuations isn’t just an ethical problem, it’s a problem that has real life consequences.
DuringHurricane Katrinain 2005, more than 600 inmates were abandoned in their cells at the Orleans Parish Prison with no active guards, food, water, or electricity. In 2017, a federal prison in Beaumont, Texas refused to evacuate for Hurricane Harveydespite a compromised water source, no working sanitation, and lack of food. And last summer, over 4,000 inmates remained in the Southwest Miami-Dade prison during Hurricane Irmain leaking cells which guards later described as covered in mold, urine, and feces.
How can we trust prison officials that tell us that having inmates “stay put” is in their best interest when there is a consistent pattern of prisoners enduring deplorable conditions in un-evacuated facilities?
The state bears the responsibility of treating those incarcerated with dignity and respect. Refusing to do so not only infringes on the prisoners’ basic rights but contributes to a pattern of neglect and maltreatment in prisons. If we turn a blind eye to this treatment, we uphold the idea that prisoners are second-class citizens and that they either should or deserve to endure the abuse they experience.
If the state has the power to keep people prisoner, shouldn’t they be expected to take care of them too?
Twitter byline: Allowing prisons to ignore mandatory evacuation orders during a hurricane only reaffirms the prisoner’s status as a second-class citizen.