Locked in the Path of Danger
September 18, 2017
When in the path of a natural disaster, such as the recent hurricanes in Texas and Florida, most people know exactly what they need to do. Trips to the grocery store and other preparations run relatively smooth — the keyword being relatively. However, there is a large group of people that is unable to do anything to prepare for natural disasters. In fact, they are largely ignored and disregarded in the face of these devastating forces of nature: the inmates in the U.S. prison system.
For many cases, if they occur, evacuations for inmates entail intense shortages in supplies and resources that enable them to have their basic necessities met. This last aspect usually leads to guards becoming too hostile to maintain control over panicking inmates. In 2005, during Hurricane Katrina, 6,800 general population prisoners, minor offenders, mentally ill prisoners and people awaiting trial at Orleans Parish Prison were joined by 300 inmates from St. Bernard the night before the hurricane hit, according to VICE. The prison was also in an evacuation zone, but Sheriff Martin Gusman announced, “The prisoners will stay where they belong.”
In the following days, the toxic-sewage-filled water had risen to chest level, generators were down, several inmates had not been given food or water and guards were ordered to shoot, on site, any prisoner attempting to escape the rising waters. In one instance, a youth correctional center resident, 13-year-old Ashley George, was held in an adult male holding area for days in neck-high water. While there were no official deaths, several prisoners went “missing” during the disaster, and many guards and inmates have made statements to the contrary.
The corrupted attitude toward incarceration has not improved since the horrific events of Katrina. In August 2011, as Hurricane Irene barreled toward New York, city officials chose not to evacuate Rikers, the largest mental health facility in the United States that also houses juveniles and people awaiting trial. And although Irene weakened before reaching the city, what would have happened if it struck with a force similar to Katrina?
In the wake of hurricanes Irma and Harvey, it appears as though America still ignores inmates, inhumanely disregarding them in evacuations. Even though together the two states are home to a quarter of a million inmates, many Americans in Texas and Florida prisons were not allowed to evacuate. Many inmates lost access to medication and food. Some were even forced to stay in cells as they flooded. What does this say about the U.S. prison system? If the current rate of natural disasters continues, will this ever change? This practice needs to be reexamined for the future.
A version of this article appeared in the Monday, Sept. 18 print edition. Opinions expressed on the editorial pages are not necessarily those of WSN, and our publication of opinions is not an endorsement of them. Email Amelia Reardon [email protected]