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South Carolina Fails to Evacuate Prisoners Threatened by Hurricane

by Matt Clarke

In September 2018, when Hurricane Florence bore down on the U.S. coast as a dangerous Category 4 storm, over a million people in Virginia, South Carolina and North Carolina were told to flee inland. Many did – especially those whose homes were located in mandatory evacuation zones. But some residents didn’t have the option of seeking higher ground and safer locations, including about 32,000 prisoners in the states’ prisons and jails. 

South Carolina Governor Henry D. McMaster ordered a mandatory evacuation of certain coastal areas, promising “we’re not going to gamble with the lives of the people of South Carolina. Not a one.” 

But several state prisons within the mandatory evacuation zones were not evacuated, including two medium-security facilities, the Ridgeland Correctional Institution in Jasper County with 934 prisoners, and the MacDougall Correctional Institution in Dorchester County with 651 prisoners. Governor McMaster later canceled the evacuation order for Jasper County, though the order for Dorchester remained in place throughout the storm.

Bryan Stirling, director of the state Department of Corrections (DOC), cited a lack of space at inland facilities to take in transferred prisoners, as well as difficulties transporting them during a large-scale evacuation of other state residents. DOC spokesman Dexter Lee added that “in the past, it has been safer to leave them [in the prisons].”

However, there have been problems with that approach previously. One South Carolina prisoner told The New Yorker he rode out a prior hurricane while locked in a flooded cell at the Lieber Correctional Institution, just eight miles from MacDougall, barely outside the evacuation zone for Hurricane Florence. He described guards refusing to open cell doors until prisoners began shouting, “Tell my kids I love them.”

In August 2017, Hurricane Harvey flooded a federal prison near Houston that was still occupied. Prisoners who remained in their cells reported shortages of food and drinking water, as well as sewage flooding.

“You’re locked in a concrete box. Windows bolted, no way out except if a person turns the key,” a spokesperson for Jailhouse Lawyers Speak told VICE News. “We have little faith in guards remaining on post if the water comes in and starts to rise.”

Keiz Ali, a radio DJ based in upstate South Carolina, said a friend who was incarcerated at MacDougall got himself placed in solitary confinement because it was on a higher floor.

As Hurricane Florence approached South Carolina, Stirling stressed the DOC had prepared for the storm with extra supplies and generators at the MacDougall facility. Lee said 266 prisoners were moved from a low-security facility in Florence County to another in Clarendon County that he called “a more secure prison.” 

Meanwhile, prisoner advocates gathered outside the State House in Columbia to protest the DOC’s decision not to remove prisoners from the evacuation zone. 

“In perfect conditions, we see people dying,” said Stephanie Serna, one of the protestors. “What makes us think that in an emergency situation they’ll do any better without any accountability?” 

Serna held a sign printed with Governor McMaster’s quote, with the words “not a one” underlined in red. The group followed the governor to the state’s Emergency Management Division offices, where they were escorted away by police.

One prisoner died at the Ridgeland Correctional Institution in South Carolina while riding out Hurricane Matthew in 2016. Then-Governor Nikki Haley said the death was seemingly unrelated to the storm, though experts warn that minor medical emergencies can quickly become life-threatening when left untreated because help is difficult to get during a hurricane.

In contrast, North Carolina prison officials took the threat of Hurricane Florence more seriously and began evacuating facilities in the storm’s path days before it made landfall. They also understood the anxiety that prisoners’ families were feeling, allowing evacuated prisoners to make phone calls home at no cost. Less than 10 of the state’s 55 prisons had to be evacuated. 

Jerry Higgins, communications officer for the state’s Department of Public Safety, said  prisoners “were deemed in peril and in jeopardy because they were in the storm’s path.”

“It was decided in consult with emergency management, local law enforcement and the counties that we needed to get those folks out of there as quickly as possible,” he added.

Virginia evacuated about 1,000 prisoners from the Indian Creek Correctional Center in Chesapeake, but many prisoners remained in the state’s coastal jails. The sheriff of Norfolk requested a two-week supply of food and medicine at the city jail to ride out the storm. Likewise, the sheriffs of neighboring Chesapeake and Portsmouth kept their jails occupied throughout Hurricane Florence. The three sheriffs were later sued by a human rights organization, Nexus Derechos Humanos, for putting around 2,500 detainees at risk.

PLN has previously reported on the impact of hurricanes and other natural disasters on prisoners, who are typically ignored and left to the mercy of both inclement weather and indifferent corrections officials. [See: PLN, May 2018, p.1]. 


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