“We’re not going to gamble with the lives of the people of South Carolina. Not a one,” South Carolina Governor Henry McMaster said at a press conference on Monday, issuing a mandatory evacuation order for the five counties expected to be hit the hardest by the incoming storm. And yet, MacDougall Correctional Institution, a local level 2 medium-security prison for men that can hold up to 671 prisoners and is located within the mandatory evacuation zone, will not be evacuated.
Ridgeland Correctional Institution in Jasper County, South Carolina, which houses 934 incarcerated individuals, was also ordered not to evacuate despite mandatory evacuation orders for the rest of the county, though the evacuation order for Jasper has since been lifted.
Neighboring states of Virginia and North Carolina are evacuating prisoners from low-lying areas, but it appears that incarcerated individuals are not counted among the people of South Carolina, whose lives the government is “not going to gamble with.”
Unfortunately, this is nothing new. Horror stories about the un-evacuated Orleans Parish Prison in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina show what’s at risk when inmates are left behind during natural disasters. When the storm hit in August 2005, the generators went out, leaving inmates in the dark, and trapped in their cells by electric-controlled doors that wouldn’t open, as filthy flood water steadily rose around them. Human Rights Watch reported that at least one building in the prison compound, which housed nearly 600 inmates, was completely abandoned by guards, and inmates weren’t evacuated until four days after the storm, with water at chest-level, and no food or drinking water. “They left us to die there,” HRW quoted one inmate as saying later. Corinne Carey, researcher from Human Rights Watch, added, “Of all the nightmares during Hurricane Katrina, this must be one of the worst.”
There’s no telling ahead of time, of course, exactly how bad the impact of Florence will be — but since there’s no way to know, why aren’t people behind bars being given the same opportunity to get out, just in case, as the rest of South Carolina’s residents?
The South Carolina Department of Corrections and the office of South Carolina Governor Henry McMaster did not respond to requests for comment for this story to answer that question, but SCDC spokesperson Dexter Lee told VICE News, “We’re monitoring the situation. Previously, it’s been safer to stay in place with the inmates rather than move to another location.” It’s unclear though, exactly whose safety he was referring to — probably not the people trapped behind bars waiting for a flood.
Daniel A. Gross, reporting for the New Yorker, was able to speak with prisoners inside one local facility and tweeted Thursday that they’re “afraid men will drown in their cells,” and that they’re not allowed to have bottles or buckets of fresh water, because those things are considered contraband.
Prisoners in South Carolina tell me that they're afraid men will drown in their cells. "I can remember one flood to where the water came knee high," one person told me. #HurricaneFlorence 1/
— Daniel A. Gross (@readwriteradio) September 13, 2018
This decision to leave inmates out of evacuation efforts comes on the heels of a two-week national prison strike where the number one demand was, “Immediate improvements to the conditions of prisons and prison policies that recognize the humanity of imprisoned men and women.” Prisoners across the country went on hunger strikes, staged sit-ins, and boycotted their prison jobs to demand better treatment — and while the official organized strike ended on September 9th, some actions are ongoing. “It is up to the people in each prison who are participating in boycotts, hunger strikes, work strikes or sit-ins to determine the right day and time to close out their actions,” the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee said in a statement on Tuesday.
“It’s telling that the SC governor vowed to not let a single life hang in the balance with the hurricane, ‘Not a one,’ and completely excluded prisoners from their calculation of worthy and human life. This is exactly why the prisoners struck,” said a spokesperson for the IWOC in an email. “It is a human rights crisis. They are not being counted as human and the SC governor straight up admitted that in his statement.”
The ACLU has called for the prison to be evacuated, tweeting on Thursday afternoon, “The people of SC who you’re responsible for include those who are incarcerated, Gov. McMaster. You can’t leave them in harm’s way.”
Human Rights Watch published a dispatch on their website on Wednesday, saying, “State and local authorities should either evacuate prisoners from facilities in the path of the storm or explain publicly and convincingly why they are certain it is safe not to. They should also know that they will be held accountable if they gamble with the safety of prisoners only to repeat the mistakes and abuses of the past.”