Perhaps the most shocking thing about South Carolina not evacuating prisoners in the path of Hurricane Florence is that it’s not all that shocking.
Despite being in mandatory evacuation zones, some South Carolina prisons are being left to fend for themselves in advance of Florence. 651 inmates at the medium-security MacDougall Correctional Institution in South Carolina will not be evacuated. Nor will inmates Lieber Correctional Institution. Both prisons are in mandatory evacuation zones.
“Right now, we’re not in the process of moving inmates,” Department of Corrections interim spokesman Dexter Lee said. “In the past, it’s been safer to leave them there.”
Safer for whom?
Dismissing the concerns for the safety of the convicted is easy. At the same time South Carolina Governor Henry McMaster (R) said. “We’re not going to gamble with the lives of the people of South Carolina. Not a one.” He was also ordering prisoners be left in mandatory evacuation zones that others have fled prior to Florence making landfall.
One legal scholar argues subjecting inmates to the full force of Hurricane Florence may violate the constitutional rights of the convicted.
“The courts have made clear that prisoners are constitutionally entitled to be housed in conditions of reasonable safety,” said David Fathi of the ACLU’s National Prison Project of the treatment of prisoners during Hurricane Harvey last year.
But the history of leaving prisoners behind is as old as the history of the modern super-hurricane disaster.
Orleans Parish Prison and Hurricane Katrina
During Hurricane Katrina, 6,800 prisoners were left behind despite the mandatory evacuation order. Orleans Parish Prison’s population was largely consistent of drunk tourists or drug-abusing young adults. Very few were in any way violent. Despite this, Sheriff Marlin Gusman said “the prisoners will stay where they belong.”
The prison’s generators failed almost immediately. With no power, the cell doors remained locked as the prison filled with water. There was no air conditioning, no ventilation, no food or basic services. Most prison officials had fled. By the time Gusman ordered an evacuation, prisoners had water up to chest-height and desperately attempted to break free of their cells to get to higher ground.
“The prisoners thought we were all planning to leave them to die locked in there,” a prison guard told Vice, “I can’t say I blamed them for thinking that.”
Guards were locked in to prevent desertion, those guilty of minor infractions were left without food and with only the contaminated floodwater to drink for four days. Orleans Parish made no official report on inmate deaths, but first-hand accounts from both guards and inmates talk of drowned corpses.
“There were definitely deaths at that prison,” said the guard. “I don’t know how they covered that up. I didn’t believe in conspiracy theories before, but now I do.”
Beaumont, Texas and Hurricane Harvey
The 3,000 inmates of the Stiles Unit were left in their facility near Beaumont, Texas as thousands, including other prisoners, were evacuated.
Beaumont was hit hard by Harvey, and so were the four prisons, including Stiles, in its vicinity. At one point, without warning, clean water flowing into Stiles was shut off, presumably when Beaumont’s water pressure system failed. This left feces and urine piling up in prison cells as supplies dwindled.
There were also crippling staff shortages at Texas prisons during Harvey, as explained by Texas’ prison guard union leader Lance Lowry. In addition to Stiles, Gist, Leblanc and BOP Beaumont were not evacuated, leaving over 8,000 inmates to ride out the storm with inadequate supplies, insufficient staff and intolerable conditions.
This wasn’t even new for Texas. When inmates weren’t evacuated from Galveston in advance of Hurricane Ike, reports described almost the same challenges and conditions Harvey would bring to Beaumont eight years later.
FCI Miami and Hurricane Irma
Ever since Hurricane Andrew devastated Florida, and in particular Florida Correctional Institute, Miami in 1992, Florida’s Bureau of Prisons had a policy of evacuating prisoners. Until, 25 years later, it didn’t.
FCI Miami was not evacuated ahead of Hurricane Irma in 2017. Instead, special guard task forces were brought in from Atlanta and Central Florida to support the FCI staff. Seven long months after the storm passed, those guards told a terrifying tale.
Power in the prison went out as predicted, while the surplus guards were left to ride out the storm in solitary confinement cells covered in mold and human waste. Guards were also not fed.
“If you were to treat inmates in this matter, that’s a violation of their Eighth Amendment rights,” said Joe Rojas, president of the American Federation of Government Employees Local 506 which represents some of the guards from Central Florida. “You cannot treat anybody in this manner.”
And the accounts provided by these guards, some of whom faced suspension for talking about the conditions they faced, said nothing of the 4,500 inmates across South Florida who faced the same storm from inside their cells.
“The place should have been evacuated immediately. It was endangering people and endangering inmates,” Rojas said. “I don’t know who made that call.”
South Carolina and Hurricane Florence
Maybe the answer to why the problem repeats itself so often is found in a distinction Rojas made, that he might not have even intended to make. A distinction between “people” and “inmates.”
“As the decision to keep prisoners locked in, at serious risk of being drowned, during one of the potentially largest storms in years make clear, not all American’s lives are valued equally,” Heather Ann Thompson, a historian at University of Michigan, told Newsweek. “This is a question of basic human rights and it should be decided firmly by law and policy with no individual discretion.”
Time and again, prisoners are left in situations that are the most unusual and cruelest, to try to survive with few supplies, little support and no hope for rescue in places designed with the most sophisticated technology and intention to prevent their escape a natural disaster the likes of which most Americans cannot imagine.
“Despite the fact that juries did not sentence these men and women to death sentences, by leaving them trapped in cells during hurricanes does just that.” said Thompson.
The inmates at MacDougall and Lieber, in Thompson’s view, have been sentenced to death. The question yet to be determined is how many can avoid that sentence during Florence.
Katelyn Kivel is a contributing editor and senior legal reporter for Grit Post in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Follow her on Twitter @KatelynKivel.