In the Eye of the Storm: When Hurricanes Impact Prisons and Jails
by Matt Clarke
Hurricanes and other major storms represent a significant threat to prisoners. Prisons and jails are often built on poorly-drained land located in flood plains or other environmentally-sensitive areas. Although meteorologists usually warn of hurricanes days or even weeks before they make landfall, prisoners cannot move themselves to higher ground and storms sometimes develop in unanticipated ways.
Corrections officials are faced with a difficult choice when warned of an approaching storm. They can stay in place, potentially exposing staff and prisoners to dangerous, even fatal conditions, or they can evacuate prisoners to a safer location. However, evacuation also has disadvantages – it is expensive and not without its own dangers as prisoners could try to escape. Also, if a detention facility is near a densely-populated area, transport buses can become mired in evacuation traffic, resulting in guards and prisoners having to ride out a hurricane while stalled on highways.
Even if an evacuation goes off without a hitch, prisoners may be housed in places not designed as living areas, such as gyms or chapels at other facilities. Those areas will not have adequate sanitation for such a large number of people, and the receiving prison’s medical, food, hygiene and laundry services may be strained or overwhelmed by the influx of evacuated prisoners. Further, sleeping on the floor, jammed shoulder-to-shoulder with other prisoners while being denied adequate access to sanitary facilities and recreation, does not comport with constitutional conditions of confinement.
Prisoners who remain behind in storm-ravaged prisons and jails are frequently exposed to poor living conditions, too. Although a facility may physically withstand a hurricane, it will likely lose electrical service and possibly water and sewage utilities as well. Even if the facility does not flood, prisoners may be forced to wade through and live in cells filled with water backed up from the sewage system. They will have little or no access to clean water and may not be given much to eat as food stocks dwindle and delivery trucks are unable to make deliveries.
An almost universal experience of prisoners left behind to weather a storm is lack of access to medical treatment. That deficiency ranges from diabetics being unable to receive their insulin shots to prisoners with serious infections simply being denied any medical care for days or weeks.
Complicating the situation is the number of jurisdictions involved. Prisoners may be housed in municipal, county or parish jails, state prisons or federal facilities, each of which falls under a different jurisdiction. Whereas a state prison system might have an evacuation plan, the decision on when and how to evacuate a county jail is solely up to the local sheriff. Likewise, federal prisons are not bound by the evacuation plans of state prison officials, even when state and federal facilities are adjacent to one another.
When Hurricane Katrina caused extensive flooding in New Orleans in August 2005, people around the nation were appalled at the sight of prisoners from the Orleans Parish Prison being held at gunpoint on a highway overpass surrounded by flood waters. What did not emerge until later was that those same prisoners had been forced to remain at the jail as it flooded up to chest level, and were told they would be shot if they tried to leave the building where they were kept for days without food, potable water or ventilation. The evacuation to the overpass did not occur until days after the flooding.
The prisoners were eventually taken from the overpass to jails in other parishes, which caused delays in court appearances that resulted in some prisoners being held longer than their maximum possible sentences. That unjust situation occurred because New Orleans officials refused to release prisoners charged with minor offenses on personal recognizance or affordable bonds prior to Katrina’s landfall. [See: PLN, March 2013, p.48; May 2007, p.18; April 2007, p.1].
Parish officials admitted they had no evacuation plan for the Orleans Parish Prison prior to Hurricane Katrina. The indelible images of prisoners baking in the sun on an overpass, while held at gunpoint, served as a clarion call to all U.S. jails and prison systems that they needed to have an evacuation plan in place in case of a natural disaster.
Unfortunately, most failed to heed that warning.
Coming hard on the heels of Katrina was Hurricane Rita, a Category 5 storm that seemed destined to make landfall near Houston, prompting an evacuation of large portions of the nation’s fourth-largest city.
The Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) attempted an evacuation of some of the facilities in Rita’s projected path, but the transport buses were caught in evacuation traffic, preventing a complete evacuation. Fortunately for the prisoners on the buses, Rita made a radical course change and diminished in strength as it approached Galveston Island; the storm ended up making landfall near Beaumont on September 24, 2005. Unfortunately, there were prisons in Beaumont that never had a chance to evacuate.
Following Rita, 453 prisoners at USP Beaumont who were forced to ride out the hurricane and its aftermath filed suit under the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA), alleging prison officials were negligent for failing to evacuate them or provide proper care after the storm hit. The prisoners were locked in their cells without food and only brown tap water to drink for the first three days following Rita’s landfall. They also had to live without showers in 100-degree temperatures amid a black mold outbreak while dealing with rampant bacterial infections and skin rashes.
“Due to the loss of electrical power as well as the lack of potable water and functional plumbing,” the prisoners said they “suffered extreme deprivations” caused by a lack of food, clean water, hygiene items and medical care while being exposed to extreme heat without even a fan for ventilation for several weeks.
“At least two prisoners died and others suffered ‘staph infections and other illness, and ... psychological injuries,’” according to pleadings filed in the case.
The federal district court dismissed the lawsuit on September 22, 2009, saying “the decision as to whether to evacuate inmates at USP-Beaumont, as well as the decisions made regarding preparations for the hurricane and its aftermath, all fall within the discretionary exception function” of the FTCA.
Although the district court found the prisoners had filed a “trenchant and resourceful response” that contained creative arguments, it was not persuasive. The court held that prison officials had “room for choice” as to their decisions, which were “the types of decisions Congress did not wish to subject to judicial second-guessing” because they were “guided by public policy concerns.” See: Spotts v. United States, U.S.D.C. (E.D. Tex.), Case No. 1:08-cv-00376; 2009 WL 3083996.
Even prisoners who were not in Hurricane Rita’s direct path suffered. The Ramsey Unit, a state facility, is located in Brazoria County south of Houston. Based on the storm’s initial projected landfall, Brazoria County was declared a mandatory evacuation zone. TDCJ officials began evacuating the prison but the evacuation stalled after only a few hundred prisoners were moved as the buses became mired in traffic from people fleeing Houston. The rest of the prisoners rode out the hurricane at the Ramsey Unit. [See: PLN, July 2006, p.24].
Electrical power was lost and prisoners were kicked out of the medical department so TDCJ guards, who could not leave the facility for the duration of the emergency, could sleep in one of the few areas with air conditioning powered by backup generators. Prisoners with medical problems were sent to a small, three-chair barber shop, where licensed vocational nurse Noland, the only medical professional remaining at the prison, presided over a “temporary infirmary.”
One prisoner, Mark Goss, developed a staph infection on his head as Rita neared shore. He showed it to Nurse Noland, who told him not to worry and gave him Tylenol. The infection spread, became bloodborne and caused Goss to experience severe internal pain, but during repeated visits Noland insisted the pain was being caused by gall bladder stones. Goss’ condition worsened to the extent that even the guards noticed, but a lieutenant who was the ranking security officer at the prison during the emergency could only refer him to Noland.
Ten days after Rita made landfall, the mandatory evacuation order was lifted and a doctor arrived at the Ramsey Unit. Upon seeing the near-comatose Goss, the doctor had him immediately transported to a hospital. Goss remained in the ICU for five months; he suffered severe damage to his internal organs, including his brain, resulting in permanent paralysis. He must now use a wheelchair for mobility.
Although not directly endangered by the storm, Goss became one of its victims when the facility was left populated in a mandatory evacuation zone without competent medical providers. Unfortunately, his story is hardly unique.
The good news is that the TDCJ saw what happened during the attempted evacuation and formed a commission to study the problem and create a plan for future emergencies. The bad news, however, is that not all Texas state prisons have followed the plan.
On September 12, 2008, Hurricane Ike came ashore in western Louisiana and southeast Texas as a 600-mile-wide Category 3 storm with wind speeds of almost 150 miles per hour. Many prisons were in Ike’s path. None were evacuated.
Over 130 prisoners at the TDCJ’s LeBlanc Unit in Beaumont filed a lawsuit after the hurricane alleging “deplorable conditions,” including a lack of clean water and electricity. State officials acknowledged that the LeBlanc Unit, Stiles Unit and Gist State Jail had received notices to boil their city-supplied water, which had become contaminated. Of course prisoners have no means to boil water, so most were forced to drink the contaminated water. [See: PLN, Sept. 2009, p.30].
The Ramsey Unit, over 100 miles west of Beaumont yet still in Hurricane Ike’s path, lost power for ten days. The over 100 mile-per-hour winds that lashed the prison for 14 hours shattered dormitory and cell windows and tore ventilation fans and sheet metal off roofs while prisoners sheltered in their cells. After the storm passed, prisoners endured over a week of sweltering heat without so much as a fan to circulate the air.
Prisoners at the Galveston County Jail fared even worse. Despite a mandatory evacuation order from Galveston city and county officials, who warned that those who remained on the island faced “certain death,” Sheriff Gean Leonard decided to have over 1,000 prisoners ride out the hurricane in a single-story jail.
The electricity went out, water and sewage utilities failed, and food ran short – leaving hungry and thirsty prisoners wading through ankle-deep contaminated water that had backed up through the sewage system. The storm ripped air conditioning units off the jail’s roof, opening large holes through which waterfalls of rain poured in. One prisoner said the storm sounded “like a freight train” when it hit the facility.
As rain flooded the jail though damaged roofs and leaky wall seams, ceiling tiles became saturated and collapsed. Black mold began to grow on the water-saturated walls and ceilings.
Medical treatment was unavailable for weeks following Hurricane Ike. Diabetics went without insulin, while prisoners who developed infections and rashes were denied antibiotics. The city’s water was not potable for over two weeks after Ike made landfall, and prisoners – who were given only about 12 ounces of water a day in the sweltering heat – were forced to drink contaminated water tricking from the taps.
A few weeks after the storm, two portable toilet units were brought in to act as restroom facilities for 288 prisoners in six, 48-man “tanks.” Prior to that, the prisoners had been forced to defecate in overflowing toilets and later use improvised plastic-bag-lined water buckets.
Galveston County prisoners were fed meals consisting of a baloney sandwich and a peanut butter sandwich or one sandwich and a boiled egg for weeks following the hurricane. When sandwiches ran short, they each received two pieces of canned ravioli as their meal. The jail’s telephone system was down after the storm. A few days later, officials allowed prisoners to use the guards’ phone to call their families and tell them they were okay. However, the calls were monitored and immediately cut off if prisoners spoke about the conditions they had to endure.
Just down the street from the Galveston County jail, stray dogs and cats housed at the animal shelter were evacuated before the storm. Yet over 1,000 prisoners, many of whom had not been convicted of a crime, were given no such consideration. The conditions at the jail were so onerous that the Texas Civil Rights Project issued a report in 2009 that concluded the county did not evacuate its prisoners because it failed to view them as “people.”
The situation as Hurricane Irene neared New York City in late August 2011 was similar to that in Galveston prior to Ike’s landfall. The areas surrounding the Rikers Island jail complex were almost all in Zone A, which was subject to a mandatory evacuation order, or in Zone B. But the jail had no assigned zone, indicating it was not to be evacuated. Indeed, the New York Times discovered that “no hypothetical evacuation plan for the roughly 12,000 inmates that the facility may house on a given day even exists.”
As reported by Mother Jones magazine on August 27, 2011, Mayor Michael Bloomberg “announced a host of extreme measures being taken by New York City in preparation for the arrival of Hurricane Irene, including a shutdown of the public transit system and the unprecedented mandatory evacuation of some 250,000 people from low-lying areas. But in response to a reporter’s question, the mayor stated in no uncertain terms (and with a hint of annoyance) that one group of New Yorkers on vulnerable ground will be staying put.”
“We are not evacuating Rikers Island,” Mayor Bloomberg stated during a news conference. Fortunately, there were no reported injuries at the jail due to the storm.
The plan not to evacuate Rikers Island had not changed by the time Hurricane Sandy came ashore near New York City in late October 2012. Luckily, neither Irene nor Sandy caused extensive damage to the facility. In fact, Rikers Island prisoners provided laundry services to a dozen emergency shelters following Sandy’s landfall; the jail complex also provided food and generators from its storehouses to help city residents during recovery efforts.
In nearby Newark, New Jersey, however, 15 prisoners used the storm as cover for an escape. They absconded from Essex County’s Logan Hall, which houses offenders sentenced for drug-related crimes who are participating in reentry programs. [See: PLN, Jan. 2015, p.1].
Although designated a “halfway house,” Logan Hall, which was operated by Community Education Centers (CEC), a private company that has since been acquired by the GEO Group, was designed and run like a jail. Prisoners were locked into small rooms and the facility was surrounded by fences topped with razor wire. The doors and gates were electronically-operated, and when the power failed as a result of Hurricane Sandy they all opened.
That allowed dozens of the 547 prisoners held at Logan Hall to get into the hallways. Once there, they reportedly destroyed furniture and vending machines, tore signs off the walls and threatened guards and female prisoners.
The CEC workers on duty were unable to organize an effective response. None knew how to start the backup generator. None even had a flashlight.
Some of the prisoners grabbed chairs and blankets to use to scale the perimeter fence and left via the unlocked front door. They quickly discovered that no scaling was required, as the fence gate was open.
Of the 15 men who escaped, six were recaptured within three days, another six were caught between three and six days later, two eluded authorities for about a week and only one remained free after two weeks.
As Hurricane Matthew neared northeast Florida in October 2016, more than 450 prisoners were evacuated from the St. Johns County Jail to the Marion County Jail. When the storm closed in on the coast of South Carolina a few days later, prisoners from the Dorchester County Detention Center were conscripted to help fill 12,000 sandbags. They later assisted in cleanup and recovery efforts at several county buildings.
Flooding associated with Hurricane Matthew caused prison officials in North Carolina to order the evacuation of nearly 800 prisoners from the Neuse Correctional Institution. The minimum-security facility is located in Goldsboro, southeast of Raleigh.
Meanwhile, due to a mandatory evacuation order, 1,543 Georgia prisoners were moved to other facilities. They were returned after the storm had passed.
“Part of our commitment to ensuring our facilities are safe and secure meant that before returning the offenders, we conducted extensive assessments of affected facilities for damage,” stated then-Georgia DOC Commissioner Homer Bryson. “Following those assessments, and the restoration of water and electrical services throughout the coastal area, we determined it was safe to return offenders to their original facilities,” he added.
And when Hurricane Matthew approached the U.S. Naval Air Station at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, the Navy evacuated about 700 military families – including spouses, children and pets – to a base in Pensacola, Florida. Sixty-one prisoners and 4,800 military personnel remained behind at the military prison complex at Guantanamo Bay, commonly known as “Gitmo.” It was clear the prisoners were not to be evacuated, no matter what. Matthew caused $2.5 billion in damage in Cuba, and the highest-security prisoners at Gitmo’s Camp 7 had to be relocated in the storm’s aftermath.
Following the evacuation debacle during Hurricane Rita, the TDCJ formed a committee to study how prison evacuations should be performed and to develop a plan for responding to natural disasters that affect correctional facilities. Those plans were first put to the test when the Brazos River experienced severe flooding in 2016 and about 4,500 prisoners had to be evacuated from the low-lying Ramsey, Stringfellow and Terrell Units. [See: PLN, May 2017, p.48].
During those evacuations the transfers to other facilities went smoothly, but prisoners experienced unconstitutional conditions at some of the host prisons – especially the Wynne Unit in Huntsville.
The 2016 evacuations were a cakewalk compared to what the TDCJ faced when Harvey made landfall as a Category 4 hurricane on August 25, 2017. The next day, as Harvey’s extreme rainfall filled the Brazos River watershed to overflowing, prison officials had to evacuate several facilities including the Stringfellow, Ramsey and Terrell Units.
Once again, the transportation of prisoners went fairly smoothly, as did the removal of prisoners from the Carol S. Vance and Jester III Units, bringing the total number of evacuated prisoners to over 6,000. However, the storm did not take the typical path of moving north and east. Instead, Hurricane Harvey bounced off an approaching front that pushed it back into the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico.
That allowed the storm to rake the Houston area with a record-breaking five feet of rain before making a second landfall near Beaumont. There, over 8,000 prisoners in three state prisons and one federal facility that had not been evacuated suffered harrowing conditions as power, water and sewage utilities failed.
In the aftermath of the storm, prisoners at the Beaumont prison complex and the TDCJ’s Stiles and LeBlanc Units, as well as the Gist State Jail, experienced a repeat of what had happened in 2005 with Hurricane Rita and with Hurricane Ike in 2008. They went days without food, sufficient potable water, showers or medication, and had to wade through backed-up sewage.
One difference was the ability of federal prisoners to send emails through the CorrLinks system. Desperate emailed messages sent to family members describing the appalling conditions were forwarded to U.S. Representative Lloyd Doggett, whose inquiries likely led to a shorter period of poor conditions for the prisoners at Beaumont. Still, they suffered for weeks following Harvey’s second landfall.
Sheriff Bobbie Vickery of Calhoun County, Texas decided not to take any chances with the storm. Despite assurances by architects that his jail could withstand a Category 5 hurricane, he evacuated prisoners to jails in Bastrop and Travis counties.
“We were expecting 9- to 15-foot storm tides, 20-plus inches of rain ... and high winds,” said Vickery. “When you put all that together, you don’t take a chance.”
His caution paid off as the jail’s generator failed when the hurricane hit. The facility also lost electric, water and sewage services.
Prisoners fared much worse at the nearby Victoria County Jail. There, a generator provided minimal necessary electricity but the facility lost sewage utilities and prisoners complained of being forced to remove feces from the toilets in their cells by hand. Chief Deputy Roy Boyd accused the prisoners of lying.
Raul Gonzales, sheriff of neighboring Refugio County, evacuated 30 prisoners to jails in Wilson and San Patricio counties. That turned out to be a wise decision, as his jail experienced considerable damage during Harvey.
In September 2017, Hurricane Irma approached the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba as a Category 5 storm. Even though five of the 41 prisoners remaining at Gitmo had been cleared for transfer out of the facility by the Obama administration, none were evacuated.
“We have no indications that any detainees at Guantanamo Bay will need to be evacuated from the installation due to Hurricane Irma,” stated Pentagon spokesman Major Ben Sakrisson.
Three years earlier, Commander John Kelly with the U.S. Southern Command had told members of Congress that “numerous [Gitmo] facilities are showing signs of deterioration and require frequent repair”; he specifically said Camp 7 was “increasingly unstable due to drainage and foundation issues.” Fortunately, no prisoners at Gitmo escaped or were seriously injured during Irma.
The same could not be said of prisoners in the British Virgin Islands (BVI), located in the Carribean southeast of Florida. There, around 100 “very serious” prisoners used the aftermath of the hurricane to escape, which prompted the British government to deploy over 1,000 military personnel from RFA Mounts Bay to help keep order. Additionally, the Royal Navy dispatched a warship to assist the BVI government.
Hurricane Irma caused severe damage in Puerto Rico before devastating the Florida Keys. More than 460 prisoners had to be evacuated from the Monroe County Detention Center on Florida’s Stock Island. According to Deputy Becky Herrin, spokeswoman for the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office, the jail sustained “very little damage” and the evacuation was eased by mutual-assistance agreements between various law enforcement agencies, sponsored by the Florida Sheriffs Association.
Monroe County was not alone. The Florida Department of Corrections (FDOC) was forced to evacuate more than 12,000 prisoners in anticipation of Irma, then a Category 4 hurricane, making landfall. Those prisoners were transported to facilities in northern Florida over the course of three days – the largest evacuation of prisoners in the state’s history.
On September 6, 2017, the Miami-Dade County Department of Corrections sent an email to defense attorneys informing them that it was taking 120 criminal defendants on house arrest into custody for the duration of the storm. The federal prison, county jail and two state prisons in Miami apparently were not evacuated despite being in evacuation Zone B – an area subject to mandatory evacuation.
Meanwhile, in Polk County, Sheriff Grady Judd tweeted that he would station deputies at hurricane shelters to check those seeking refuge for outstanding warrants – a move that was widely criticized for discouraging people from going to shelters during the storm. Sheriff Judd was later sued by Nexus Services, Inc. for subjecting people to criminal background checks before they could enter a shelter. See: Libre by Nexus v. Judd, Circuit Court for Polk County (FL), Case No. 2017CA003170.
“Sheriff Grady Judd knew that people would be afraid because of his statements.... That fear is causing them to not seek shelter, and that as a result people.... Men, women, and children, may die. This storm is deadly, and how many people will die or be injured because of Judd’s reckless tweets?” said Mike Donovan, CEO of Nexus Services. “The Sheriff has sworn an oath to protect people, not endanger them. His actions are reckless and unconstitutional, and he needs to be held accountable for his actions.”
Many emergency shelters in Florida refuse to admit sex offenders.
“For the most part they really can’t go stay with family and friends, even if they do have a safe place to go with somebody they know, because chances are those addresses aren’t going to be compliant with the [sex offender] ordinances or with the residence laws,” said Prof. Jill Levenson at Barry University in Miami.
Sex offenders on community supervision in Florida have the option of sheltering in local jails.
“Regardless of one’s history of criminal behavior, we really need to make sure that every human being is protected in a natural disaster, and that sensible plans are in place to ensure the safety of individuals balanced reasonably with the risk they may pose,” Levenson stated.
As Irma continued its path up the Eastern Seaboard, it caused the evacuation of prisons in Georgia, juvenile facilities in South Carolina and the use of prisoner slave labor both to prepare for the storm and recover from it.
About 1,700 prisoners were evacuated from Georgia’s Coastal State Prison, and another 252 residents at the Coastal Transitional Center were relocated. Both facilities are near the coast in Savannah.
The storm caused 31 state prisons that were not evacuated to lose power. The Georgia Department of Corrections tasked prisoner work crews to respond to requests for removal of hurricane-related debris.
In South Carolina, the Department of Juvenile Justice moved over 70 juvenile offenders to facilities in Columbia. The South Carolina Department of Corrections required prisoner work crews to fill sandbags in preparation for the storm.
The FDOC dispatched around 180 work squads of five to 10 prisoners each to assist in hurricane debris cleanup efforts in Florida. Those state prisoners, and their counterparts from county jails, received no pay for their labor.
Following the evacuation for Hurricane Irma, one Florida prisoner, Camilo Quintero, jumped out the emergency exit window in a transport bus in an apparent escape attempt while he was being returned to prison on September 18, 2017. The bus was traveling on the Florida State Turnpike in Palm Beach County when the incident occurred. Quintero was fatally injured and pronounced dead the next morning.
Puerto Rico had little time to recover from the damage caused by Hurricane Irma before it received a direct hit from Maria, a Category 4 storm, on September 20, 2017. The hurricane ripped into the island with wind speeds of 155 miles per hour, taking down the power grid and communication structures, and stripping trees. Puerto Rico’s 1.5 million residents were left in severe distress, including around 12,000 prisoners held in 29 territorial and federal prisons.
There was no evacuation of the island’s prisoners prior to Maria’s arrival. Hector Perez Cintron, spokesman for Puerto Rico’s Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (PRDCR), said that neither the winds nor flooding would be a problem. The island’s only federal prison, the 1,389-bed MDC Guaynabo, was not evacuated either.
Just before the hurricane left a wake of destruction, the PRDCR decided to evacuate its easternmost prison at Rio Grande. During the transfer of the facility’s 900 prisoners, 13 escaped. A week later only two were still at large.
The federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) had to evacuate MDC Guaynabo after the storm due to “difficulties in securing supplies and maintaining power.” Little information was made available regarding what prisoners in Puerto Rico had to endure while riding out Hurricane Maria. Weeks after the storm, prisoners’ relatives still had not heard from them.
Lessons Not Learned
The response of prison and jail officials to hurricanes and other major storms is difficult to understand. Detention facilities in Puerto Rico, Gitmo and Rikers Island seem to have no plan for evacuation regardless of how strong or dangerous a storm, or related flooding and other problems. Texas has an evacuation plan that works well during the transportation phase but is less effective when staff at host prisons decide to ignore it.
Although meteorologists are quite good at predicting the path of hurricanes, storms sometimes form too close to the coast to allow for much warning, or shift unpredictably. Thus, prison and jail officials must plan for the possibility of both pre-storm and post-storm evacuations – stockpiling necessary food, water, medications and other supplies in advance of hurricane season.
They also need to be transparent and truthful about the fate of evacuees. For example, during the evacuation for Hurricane Harvey, the TDCJ posted photos on its website of gyms full of cots awaiting evacuees. However, those were free-world evacuation sites and state prisoners did not get cots; they had to sleep on the floor. Likewise, BOP officials “proved” that all was well at its prison complex in Beaumont by posting photos of employees handing out bottled water to prisoners. But some of the pictured employees hadn’t worked at the facility in years, indicating they were older images, possibly of a drill.
Further, law enforcement officers should not enact barriers to people seeking shelter. In Austin, Texas, registered sex offenders were identified and removed from emergency shelters, as if they were not at risk from the storm like other residents. And as noted above, deputies in Polk County, Florida checked people for outstanding warrants before allowing them into shelters. The resulting lawsuit against Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd, initially filed in state court, was voluntarily dismissed in March 2018 so it could be re-filed in federal court.
Public officials must also stop seeing pets and zoo animals as being more important than people held in prisons and jails. An example is the animals that were evacuated from Galveston Island in Texas before Hurricane Ike made landfall, yet prisoners were left to face hunger, thirst and flooding following the storm. And while Florida makes it a felony to abandon a dog during extreme weather conditions, prisoners have no such legal protection. Yes, animals should be given adequate shelter but so too should people, especially prisoners who are unable to protect or evacuate themselves during hurricanes.
In addition, corrections officials need to realize that prisoners have family members who care about them. When threatened by storms or other natural disasters, prisoners must be able to communicate with their families to let them know they are safe.
Fixing the Problem
The greatest problem for prisons and jails during major storms is not wind damage, but flooding. Flooding is a systemic issue caused by the construction of detention facilities on cheap, poorly-drained land near rivers or the coast. It is incredibly shortsighted to build such facilities in flood zones, yet that is often done.
“Throughout history, prisons have always been located at the edge of civilization,” noted Rachel Sperry, president of Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility. “As much as American voters supported the expansion of criminal penalties and prison construction in the ‘80s and ‘90s, most every voting community also rejected new prisons being located at or near them.”
According to Sperry, building prisons in isolated areas shields them from public scrutiny, allowing them to be placed in flood zones and other environmentally dangerous locations. Further, prison design has always focused on security – not on the safety or wellbeing of prisoners.
This holds true even when replacement facilities are constructed, such as a new jail that replaced the Escambia County Central Booking and Detention Center in Florida, which was destroyed in an explosion caused by extreme flooding in 2014. The replacement jail was sited on the same flood-prone plot of land. [See: PLN, Feb. 2017, p.38].
“This stuff really doesn’t enter the minds of policy makers in decision making,” said PLN managing editor Alex Friedmann, who was quoted in an October 3, 2017 article published by The Crime Report. “The bottom line is that prisoners are a fairly expendable population.
“Policymakers just don’t exhibit the same level of concern for inmates as they do with non-incarcerated residents. That basically has to do with the perception of prisoners and how we basically de-humanize them through mass incarceration.”
Further, some prisons in the U.S. are antiquated and thus at greater risk from hurricanes and other natural disasters, Friedmann stated.
“Many facilities are fairly ancient,” he said. “They might get repairs, but there’s an enormous amount of expense building a new prison. We still have 100-year-old prisons in the United States.”
Whatever the cause, the 2017 hurricane season showed that evacuations should not be the only solution. Hurricanes Harvey and Irma impacted Florida and Texas. Together those two states house 18% of the nation’s prison population, leading to the record-breaking evacuation of over 18,000 prisoners. But that is not a practical solution for flood-prone detention facilities, as it is both expensive and dangerous – both for prisoners and the public.
“Moving thousands of prisoners is a logistical nightmare,” Friedmann noted. “Doing that safely while providing food, medication, shelter and so on – that’s an enormous undertaking. Typically, corrections agencies are not well equipped to do that.”
Nor, as the above examples demonstrate, have most prison and jail officials developed sufficient plans to ensure that prisoners remain safe before, during and after hurricanes and major storms.
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