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Incarcerated people will be left behind to face Hurricane Florence despite mass evacuations

For people in prison, hurricanes have outsized implications.

A prison in South Carolina. CREDIT: LOGAN CYRUS/AFP/Getty Images
A prison in South Carolina. CREDIT: LOGAN CYRUS/AFP/Getty Images

Hurricane Florence could be the worst storm to hit the southeastern United States in a quarter century, spurring mass-evacuations across the region and heightened concern from officials. But not all residents are able to flee inland and for incarcerated people, natural disasters often mean labor before and after events, in addition to uncertain and dangerous conditions throughout the ordeal itself.

Prison populations are among those must vulnerable during hurricanes. While the exact number of people impacted right now is unclear, at least several thousand inmates are being kept in prisons throughout South Carolina, North Carolina, and Virginia — the three states most likely to see severe impacts as Florence, currently a Category 4 hurricane, makes landfall and the end of this week.

The National Weather Service has said Florence “will likely be the storm of a lifetime for portions of the Carolina coast” and both South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster (R) and North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper (D) have ordered mandatory evacuations for several areas.

For incarcerated residents, that’s far from a guarantee. On Tuesday, South Carolina Department of Corrections (SCDC) officials said that 934 inmates and some 119 prison staffers would be left behind in Jasper County, an area that was briefly under evacuation notice on Monday.

A map indicating a few South Carolina prisons and their proximity to the coast. CREDIT: Google Maps
A map indicating a few South Carolina prisons and their proximity to the coast. CREDIT: Google Maps

“Right now, we’re not in the process of moving inmates,” SCDC spokesman Dexter Lee told The State. “In the past, it’s been safer to leave them there.”

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Another South Carolina prison in Berkeley County, which is under an evacuation order, also has no plans to move its 650 inmates. The state itself has evacuated no prisoners in almost two decades — the last evacuation was during Hurricane Floyd in 1999.

To the north, that narrative is less consistent. Some prisons in North Carolina and Virginia have announced evacuations in advance of Florence, although North Carolina prison systems spokesperson Jerry Higgins told reporters that less than a fifth of the state’s 55 prisons would be evacuated.

Only populations in lower-security, small prisons will be moved in the state; high-security prisons won’t be. A spokesperson for the North Carolina Department of Public Safety told BuzzFeed some 3,000 inmates have been evacuated, but did not give specifics.

Those left behind could face any number of scenarios. Florence’s path is hard to predict and forecasters have emphasized the uncertainty surrounding the hurricane’s direction.

Prisons are already compromised by climate change — extreme heat has killed inmates in recent years — and hurricanes are no different.  Passing over warmer-than-average waters has allowed Florence to supercharge and gain in size. Forecasters are now concerned that the storm will be reminiscent of Hurricane Harvey in that it will slow down and unleash a torrent of rain once it arrives.

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For those in prison facilities, that scenario could be a nightmare. When Harvey hit Texas last August, inmates reported horrifying conditions. Cells flooded and sewage came pouring in, while prisoners went without water and endured food shortages.

In New Orleans, thousands of incarcerated people were abandoned as Hurricane Katrina arrived in 2005. New York City too had no evacuation plan for Rikers Island in 2012 when Hurricane Sandy struck, even as the jail’s 12,000 occupants were left perilously close to evacuation zones. And those left behind in Puerto Rico’s prisons after Hurricane Maria, meanwhile, reported dehydration, fear, and violence at the hands of prison guards.

It isn’t only during a hurricane that those in prison are affected — they also see unique impacts before and after storms, when they are often used as a cheap source of labor in preparation and recovery efforts.

On Monday, SCDC’s official Twitter account posted a photo showing incarcerated workers assisting with storm preparations. “In advance of Hurricane Florence [SCDC] sandbagging operations have commenced,” the account commented.

Incarcerated labor is commonly used both in preparations for natural disasters and in their aftermath. Under the Constitution, forced labor is legal in prisons, and incarcerated workers have few protections. Many are required to assist in situations where other people are told to evacuate, at great personal risk in a scenario advocates say precludes the ability to give consent.

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Throughout the summer, incarcerated people have worked to fight wildfires on the West Coast in states like California. They’ve done so for a $1 an hour when on duty and a mere $2 per day while off-duty. Prison reform advocates told ThinkProgress that such scenarios are common in most natural disasters, albeit with variation from region to region.

On the East Coast, that frequently means work connected to hurricanes. Expectations range from prison to prison and such institutions rarely invite scrutiny into their practices. But many openly tout the disaster-related labor performed by inmates, often on social media.

Advocates expressed heightened concern about incarcerated populations left behind in the face of disasters like Florence, but said growing media attention around such issues offers a silver lining. Nicole Porter, who works with the Sentencing Project, a research and advocacy group, told ThinkProgress she felt that attention to the impact of hurricanes and heat waves on those in prisons could be “representative of a sea change” even as such groups remain precarious.

In the meantime, incarcerated people in areas like the Carolinas face an encroaching disaster, to the dismay of their loved ones. On one Facebook group expressing solidarity for inmates, posters shared their concerns over the decision not to evacuate those in South Carolina.

“Right now we know that families are concerned and worried about the storm and their incarcerated loved ones and not having any mention of the plans or hearing the concerns has causes more anxiety and fear,” wrote the operator of the account Hearts for Inmates.

Comments left on other posts within the group expressed concern for family members. “I pray my big brother is safe,” wrote the sister of one incarcerated man. “This is ridiculous.”