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Florida Jailers Leave Detainees Out of Evacuation Plans During Hurricane

by David M. Reutter

On September 28, 2022, as Hurricane Ian bore down on Florida and neared Category 5 strength, the state Department of Corrections (DOC), which holds about 80,000 prisoners, began evacuating 2,300 of them from 23 prisons statewide. But some lockups in the storm’s path took little action: Rather than evacuate pretrial detainees and prisoners, they battened down the hatches to ride out the storm.

When it comes to hurricanes, residents in the direct path of dangerous storms are subjected to evacuation orders, some of them mandatory. DOC had three major prisons in the direct path of Ian: Charlotte Correctional Institution (CI), DeSoto CI, and Hardee CI. They sit in three of the hardest-hit counties. But rather than evacuate those prisoners, DOC crammed them into the main units of each prison complex to hunker down.

“Multiple satellite facilities, community work release centers and work camps were evacuated in an abundance of caution,” according to DOC, adding that prisoners “were relocated to large main units (parent facilities) better equipped to weather the storm.”

This writer has now been incarcerated in DOC through five major hurricanes, four of which were on the nearest edge or underneath the eye of the storm. In none of those instances was I ever evacuated — even when we knew we were in the storm’s projected path. Instead, we endured the storm, suffered power outages for 3 to 4 days, swallowed down paper bags filled with a pasty dry peanut butter or bologna sandwich, a bag of cabbage, and a cookie or fresh fruit. Aside from the initial shock of the winds’ force and the resulting inconveniences, it felt like I was in a brick fortress as I rode out these Category 4 storms.

The damage inflicted by Hurricane Ian required roof and ventilation system repairs at Hardee CI, where it also left a few seriously leaning or downed fences. The force of the rain blasted the paint off several wind facing walls. Dorms incurred minor flooding from leaky doors, windows or roofs. None was so severe that it couldn’t be dealt with via a mop and bucket. Work camp prisoners were moved into the chapel during the storm, its windows covered with plywood. The day after the storm passed, the plywood came down in the chapel and in two open bays in dorms. The work camp reopened. Hot meals were provided from the chow hall.

According to DOC, no prisoners or staff incurred injuries due to the storm. “In Florida, it’s what we do,” said spokesperson Paul Walker. “Hurricanes are part of life.”

But things were much more dangerous in some county jails. Lee and Collier counties reported no injuries to prisoners or pretrial detainees at their jails, which sit in the worst-hit areas, close to Florida’s Gulf Coast. One of Lee County’s jails stands in a flood zone designated for mandatory evacuation. However, Sheriff Carmine Marceno insisted detainees and prisoners were safe there, though “in an abundance of caution” he moved some to higher floors.

That’s the type of decision which proved so dangerous when Hurricane Katrina roared through New Orleans in 2005. The lack of evacuations in Florida in 2022 “disappointed” those with local advocacy group Restorative Justice Coalition. “We’re disappointed that they did not make the decisions to evacuate in those areas,” said co-founder Angel D’Angelo. “Officials who made the decision basically decided to gamble human lives.” 

Sources: Florida Phoenix, Miami New Times, New Republic, Newsweek

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