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As It Prepares For A Hurricane, South Carolina (Once Again) Does Not Evacuate A Prison

South Carolina Governor Henry McMaster visiting areas at risk of flooding after Hurricane Florence in 2018
Sean Rayford/Getty Images

As It Prepares For A Hurricane, South Carolina (Once Again) Does Not Evacuate A Prison


Hurricane Dorian, which devastated the Bahamas and largely spared Florida, is now headed to Georgia and North and South Carolina, where it is expected to have a severe impact.

Over the weekend, the governor of South Carolina issued mandatory evacuation orders to take effect Monday. The evacuation order covered approximately 830,000 people living in coastal counties, Time reported.

“We know we can’t make everybody happy, but we believe we can keep everyone alive,” Governor Henry McMaster said while announcing the evacuation orders Sunday. He also ordered schools and state government offices in eight counties to close starting Tuesday.

But at least one South Carolina state agency has taken a different approach. The state corrections department announced that it would not be evacuating people incarcerated at and employed at Ridgeland Correctional Institution in Jasper County.

Emily Bohatch of The State reported Tuesday on the department’s decision not to evacuate the prison, despite its location in an evacuation zone. She noted that the agency also initially chose not to evacuate people from three prisons as Hurricane Florence approached last year, later changing that to two prisons after there was widespread attention to and condemnation of the decision.

At the time, Daniel Gross reported in the New Yorker on the experience of people trapped in one of the prisons that was in an evacuation zone but not evacuated.  As they awaited the storm’s approach, one source, who asked that he be called Albert, told Gross via texts (on a contraband cell phone) that he had barely left his cell in days, the result of a lockdown until after the storm. The men locked in their cells were unable to store extra water with them. “Not allowed bottles or buckets,” Albert wrote. “They call it contraband.” Bryan Stirling, the corrections director, confirmed that people were not allowed to store water in bottles. He defended the decision not to evacuate, citing logistical and public safety concerns. “We would have a thousand prisoners on buses, on potentially very congested routes. It’s not safe for anybody,” he told Gross.

Writing for the Daily Appeal about South Carolina’s decision last year, Sarah Lustbader looked at the indifference of authorities that make the decisions not to evacuate incarcerated people possible. During Hurricane Sandy in 2012, New York had no evacuation plan for Rikers Island, where 12,000 people were jailed at the time, even though it was close to areas zoned for evacuation. When asked how the city would protect people in the jails, Mayor Michael Bloomberg instead responded: “[On] Rikers Island, the land is up where they are and jails are secured. … Don’t worry about anybody getting out.”

The indifference to the well-being of incarcerated people is, of course, not limited to hurricane preparations. Numerous states and localities fight the straightforward need for air conditioning during periods of deadly heat, for instance, sometimes choosing to spend more to oppose air conditioning than it would take to install it. The Sabin Center on Climate Change, in multiple reports, has pointed out how incarcerated people are left unprotected from the extreme weather events that are becoming more frequent because of climate change.

In South Carolina, the men locked in prison cells, awaiting a hurricane with no access to the outside world, already live in conditions of extreme violence and despair. In January, a columnist for the Post and Courier wrote of a “silent epidemic of suicides”—at least 10 last year alone. The death rate, including deaths from homicides and suicides, has gone up every year for the past five years even as the number of people in prison went down, making the state’s prisons among the deadliest in the country.

The violence at Lee Correctional Institution in South Carolina last year, that left seven dead, sparked the launch of the 2018 national prison strike. (The strike had been planned for many months, but organizers moved up the launch in response to events at Lee.) Text messages sent from inside Lee that night described bodies piling up while guards waited hours to intervene. That indifference to the humanity of the people locked up was consistent with an environment where, as the historian Heather Ann Thompson wrote immediately after, family visits are rare, people are underfed, and “daily degradations grind away at men’s souls.” Thompson also pointed out that “it is contraband cell phones that make it possible for these prisoners to get their own accounts of the riot to the public…”

The Department of Corrections responded with punitiveness and a call to jam those cell phones. People alleged to have been involved in organizing the riot were transferred to prisons in Mississippi. Prisons across the state were put on lockdown, punishing the few people who had any role in the violence at Lee and the many who did not; eight months later, more than a third of people in prison across the state were still on lockdown.

South Carolina officials have repeatedly called for increased staffing as the solution, but the state suffers from the senseless incarceration of too many people. One in every 10 people in South Carolina prisons is serving a life sentence. The state’s 7 percent rate of parole release is among the lowest in the nation, as advocates have pointed out. In the immediate aftermath of the violence at Lee, state lawmakers proposed parole and sentencing reforms that would give more people, including elderly people, a chance of release earlier.

The 2018 prison strike, one organizer told Democracy Now last summer, was “really a declaration of humanity.” One participant, held in a South Carolina prison, told the Greenville News during the strike: “Prisons in America are a war zone. Every day prisoners are harmed due to conditions of confinement. For some of us it’s as if we are already dead. So what do we have to lose?”