Get Informed

Subscribe to our newsletters for regular updates, analysis and context straight to your email.

Close Newsletter Signup

‘Safer to Leave Them There’

How the politics of storm preparation reveal whose lives matter, and who gets left behind.

Prisoners from the Brevard County Jail worked to fill and load sandbags ahead of Hurricane Irma in Meritt Island, Florida in September 2017.
Brian Blanco/Getty Images

‘Safer to Leave Them There’

How the politics of storm preparation reveal whose lives matter, and who gets left behind.

As Hurricane Florence lurches toward the Southeast, there’s another, familiar storm brewing. Right-wing gadfly Rush Limbaugh has speculated that the forecasts are just a way to “heighten the belief in climate change,” with more moderate voices warning that we shouldn’t politicize what’s likely to be a human tragedy with talk of global warming. Environmentalists argue that it’s exactly the time to politicize the event, and seize the opportunity.

Whether or not to politicize a storm, though, isn’t a question that makes a whole lot of sense. How hurricanes play out—and who they kill—are the result of deeply political choices. Officials in South Carolina have made theirs. In a press conference on Wednesday, Governor Henry McMaster urged residents that, “If you are in one of the evacuation zones, you need to leave now.” But there were no plans made to evacuate the roughly 650 prisoners at MacDougall Correctional Institution, a medium-security men’s prison in one of the five counties under mandatory evacuation. Prisoners there are being forced to stay put as the storm, recently downgraded from Category 4 to Category 2, barrels onto shore. As a South Carolina Department of Corrections (DOC) official explained, “In the past, it’s been safer to leave them there.”

It’s not the first time lives have been deemed expendable in the face of a catastrophic storm. Last year, Hurricane Maria hit an island—Puerto Rico, a territory of the U.S.—that has been under a form of colonial control for centuries. The United States diverted nearly $10 million in funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to ICE, potentially hampering recovery efforts in order to help lock up people who themselves may be fleeing the slower climate impacts of droughts south of the border. This week, President Trump implied the death toll of that storm in Puerto Rico was fake news, suggesting that estimates of 3,000 people (and most likely more) killed in that storm were numbers issued to undermine his presidency.

Another obviously political choice driving storms is the one to continue extracting and burning fossil fuels, the main contributor to global warming. It’s manifestly true that climate change has helped fuel Hurricane Florence, with warmer waters allowing it to move more slowly and gather strength in the process. Yet there’s nothing inherently dangerous about storms emboldened by climate change. The real threat is in how the societies they hit are organized: Who gets hit worst, and whose lives matter enough to protect from storm surges, floods, and winds?

Hurricane Florence approaches the U.S. coast.
Credit: NOAA

Jordan Mazurek, a Texas-based researcher with the group Fight Toxic Prisons, has spent the lead-up to the last several big storms to hit the continental U.S. organizing call-ins (or what he calls “phone zaps”) to pressure local, state, and even the federal government to evacuate prisoners in harm’s way. It worked in North Carolina and Virginia, but South Carolina’s DOC—which hasn’t issued an evacuation order for prisoners since 1999—is holding out. (As of Friday morning, there had been no word from the governor’s office that it intends to evacuate the prisoners, though one minimum security prison was evacuated.)

Still, even if evacuations are agreed to, that’s no guarantee they will actually happen. “We should not trust governments to do this work of their own volition,” Mazurek said. Around Hurricane Irma last year, he adds, the Florida Department of Corrections agreed to an evacuation of prisoners, but thousands of federal, state and county prisoners were left behind.

If past storms are any indication, what could await prisoners in Florence’s path is a lack of access to clean water, severely limited food supplies and overflowing toilets, conditions likely to be exacerbated if guards and prison staff don’t show up. Prisoners left behind during Hurricane Harvey in Texas last year dealt with water up to their knees for several days, and taps cut off as their prison’s plumbing gave out. One prisoner told Mother Jones’s Nathalie Baptiste, “They left us locked in an 8 by 12 foot cell for several days with feces and urine piling up in our toilets,” and that few if any arrangements were made in advance of the storm to ensure their safety.

Hurricanes aren’t the only effects of climate change that pose a threat to prisoners. As an investigation from Truthout and Earth Island Journal found, officials in Texas admitted to 23 heat-stroke-related deaths since 1998 throughout its state-operated prisons, 10 of which occurred in 2011. Seventy-nine of its 108 units lack air conditioning, the investigation found, despite temperatures that can easily exceed 100 degrees.

“Historically prisoners have not been part of hurricane planning,” Mazurek said, “until it comes time to use them as cheap labor to help with disasters.” The same prisoners forced to endure Florence may well be made to do unpaid labor cleaning up its damage, like prisoners in Florida after Irma. (Prison labor has also been a major part of California’s plans for fighting wildfires; more than 2,000 prisoners in the state are serving as firefighters, earning around $2 per day.)

“A lot of the environmental movement is increasingly focused on frontline communities,” Mazurek tells me by phone, referring to those most impacted by fossil fuel extraction and climate change. “What a lot of the mainstream environmental movement has neglected up until this point is that those exact same communities are overincarcerated. If we’re going to lift up the stories of frontline communities, we have to do the same for incarcerated people.”

In a new genre of criminal justice programming, incarcerated people are the creators

In a new genre of criminal justice programming, incarcerated people are the creators

What you’ll read today

  • Spotlight: In a new genre of criminal justice programming, incarcerated people are the creators

  • Justice in America Episode 8: Crimmigration

  • In New York, most parolees can now vote—but many websites say they can’t

  • Ohio state representative blames 11-year-old girl for getting tased by cop

  • In NYC, turnstile jumping arrests down, but race disparities persist

  • Border Patrol agent changes his mind about immigration and quits

  • Another point for the ‘blue wall of silence

In the Spotlight

In a new genre of criminal justice programming, incarcerated people are the creators

Yesterday, the hit podcast “Ear Hustle” began its third season. “Ear Hustle” can be seen as one of a new genre of criminal justice programming, one that goes beyond the lock-em-up retributivism of the “Law & Order” shows as well as the prison voyeurism of shows like “Prison Break” which might involve formerly incarcerated people as consultants, but often play to stereotypes. In this new genre, people directly affected by the criminal justice system share their insights, not only as characters or interviewees, but as creators. “Ear Hustle” is created by Earlonne Woods and Antwan Williams, two men incarcerated in San Quentin, with Nigel Poor, a visual artist. The show tries to get at “a more three-dimensional view of prison,” according to Poor. [ely kalfus / Crime Report] Today we include three short excerpts from excellent stories of life inside, edited for clarity and brevity.

In the first episode of “Ear Hustle,” which focused on the ups and downs of having a cellmate, two brothers named Emile and Eddie, incarcerated at San Quentin, told their story:

Emile: I’m in there with my brother, and I’m thinking to myself, “We’re brothers. We should live together. We should cell up.” Right? In an environment where nothing is safe, it’s like, “Hey, what could be better and safer than that?” So, he moves into my cell.

Eddie: I was happy. To be able to just exhale for a moment in prison.

Emile: The first few nights were great and then it wasn’t.

Eddie: I didn’t really know my brother like I thought I did.

Emile: He’s still Seventh Day Adventist. And he’s devout. So, the Sabbath, you’re not supposed to watch television, but I watch television. So, he asked me to use my headphones. Which, in theory, wasn’t a horrible request, but my headphones are like 3 feet long, and the space between my bunk and my television is like 3 1/2 feet. “Man, I’m not going to do that.”

Eddie: He was watching soap operas and soap operas was like a trigger for me because I remember hearing “The Young and Restless” tune and there’d be straight violence in the household.

Emile: I didn’t really understand what he was going through. I thought like he was just trying to convert me. I’m a grown man and this is my television. And he turns my television off. I turn the television back on. I’m like, “Have you lost your mind?” So he declares a passive aggressive war on me, and he stopped showering.

Eddie: They say the aluminum in the antiperspirant deodorants and stuff will cause memory loss or Alzheimer’s when you get older, and I was like, “Why would I poison myself like that?”

Emile: He wants to “be natural” and “it’s just a natural smell” and “what’s the big deal.” It’s a big deal. Let me tell you.

They would squabble so much that a neighbor began yelling, “Fratricide!” Eventually, they asked to be moved to different cells because, according to Emile, “living with someone in an apartment is difficult enough, but living with someone in a box, you have to be compatible in a lot of different ways and me and Eddie aren’t compatible.” They get along far better now that they don’t share a cell. [Ear Hustle]

For the Marshall Project’s “Life Inside” series, Jerry Metcalf described a day in his life at a Michigan facility. We feature here the first half of that day. “At 1:30 a.m., I’m jarred awake in my cell by an officer wielding the brightest flashlight in the world. He gives me 10 minutes to throw on some clothes and escorts me to the isolation cells, where I strip down again for a thorough search and begin a three-hour suicide watch. This is my prison job: to sit with inmates deemed suicidal and just talk with them, and make sure they don’t try anything. Shift over, I’m strip-searched again and escorted back to my housing unit, where I take a quick shower, stretch, meditate, pray, then climb back under my itchy wool blanket and hit the sack around 6 a.m. I wake up at 10, thanks to all the hooting and hollering outside my cell.  I then hike down the Rock (our term for the cell block) to the communal bathroom I share with 48 other inmates, [and] brush my teeth between four young kids who are rapping. I jog over to our unit’s kitchen area, where I wait in line to use one of two microwaves shared by 96 convicts. Luckily, I’m able to heat up my coffee before I hear, ‘Five minutes til count time, people! Be on your bunks and be visible!’” [Jerry Metcalf / Marshall Project]

Reporter Keri Blakinger has published reflections on her time incarcerated. “Makeup wasn’t just a beauty ritual; it was one of the few remaining outlets of self-expression we had. [E]ach hard-won stroke of makeup was a painted symbol of rebellion.” She includes instructions for jailhouse mascara:

Step one: Break apart a black pen and pour the ink into a bowl.

Step two: Mix in toothpaste.

Step three: Spread this minty fresh mess onto your eyelashes by whatever means possible.

Step four: Remember this is not waterproof and, whatever you do, do not cry all day. (Yes, the no-crying dictum can be a major stumbling block in jail, especially on visitation days.)

“It sometimes looks like circus makeup,” she writes. “But we didn’t really care. Because makeup wasn’t just about appearances—especially in the places where it was banned. It might have looked like a mishap to everyone else, but to us it looked an awful lot like a middle finger.” [Keri Blakinger / Houston Chronicle]

Stories From The Appeal

Protesters rally in July in Bridgeport, Connecticut. [John Moore/Getty Images]

Justice in America Episode 8: Crimmigration. Josie and Clint talk with Alida Garcia, an attorney and advocate at, about where immigration and criminal law increasingly overlap. [Josie Duffy Rice and Clint Smith]

In New York, Most Parolees Can Now Vote—But Many Websites Say They Can’t. A review by The Appeal before today’s primary election found that as of this week, more than half of the state’s county-level Board of Elections websites stated explicitly that parolees don’t have the right to vote. [Emma Whitford]

Stories From Around the Country

Ohio state representative blames 11-year-old girl for getting tased by cop: An Ohio state lawmaker from Clermont County responded to news that a Cincinnati police officer used a taser on an 11-year-old girl by saying that he would be “ashamed and embarrassed” if his child “did something stupid enough to get herself tased.” John Becker, a Republican, wrote in a monthly letter to constituents that if his child resisted arrest, “I’d be blaming myself and endlessly soul searching to figure out how I failed as a parent and why my kid grew up to be a punk.” Becker said he has “had it with all of the finger-pointing at law enforcement officers for shooting a punk in self-defense.” He added, “Every time I hear shouts of, ‘Justice! We want justice!,’ I want to shout back, ‘Parenting! We want parenting!’ [Sam Rosenstiel / Cincinnati Enquirer]

In NYC, turnstile jumping arrests down, but race disparities persist: As broken windows policing strategies are increasingly discredited, many have advocated against aggressive arrests of turnstile jumpers in New York subways, which they say largely punish the poor and people of color. Last year, Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. said he would no longer prosecute most fare evasion charges. But a recent Marshall Project analysis of data shows that while turnstile arrests have decreased significantly, one thing that has not changed is who gets arrested: “89 percent of those arrested this year are black or Hispanic, virtually the same proportion since 2014,” write Anna Flagg and Ashley Nerbovig. “Across the city, neighborhoods with the most turnstile arrests per subway card swipe tend to be predominantly black or Hispanic.” [Anna Flagg and Ashley Nerbovig / Marshall Project]

Border Patrol agent changes his mind about immigration and quits: Joshua Childress spent seven years as a U.S. Border Patrol in Arizona. Last month, he resigned. He had changed his mind about immigration. At first, he believed in the mission: “My understanding of the laws at the time was that there were proper ways to get into this country legally, and that the people that were coming across were just shirking those laws.” Once, he saw lash marks on a man’s back. He asked the man how he’d gotten them, and it turned out that a drug trafficker had whipped him for refusing to carry drugs over the border. “I didn’t feel good about sending that guy back,” says Childress. “But there are countless others that don’t have a dramatic story like that. They just want a better life. I think most people in their shoes would do the same. And I stopped being able to reconcile that.” He was also influenced by podcasts he would hear while driving around the border, especially a show called “Unregistered.” [Zach Weissmueller / Reason]

Another point for the ‘blue wall of silence’:

Thanks for reading. We’ll see you tomorrow.

Have a tip for The Appeal? Write to us at A good tip is a clear description of newsworthy information that is supported by documented evidence.

More in Explainers

Eight legislative reforms await the California governor’s signature, and more

Eight legislative reforms await the California governor’s signature, and more

In This Edition of the Political Report

September 13, 2018: Governor Jerry Brown must soon decide the fate of a series of criminal justice reforms that the California legislature adopted in August. I also review Delaware and Rhode Island’s primaries, and look ahead to general elections in Plymouth and Tulsa counties.

  • Primary results: Kathleen Jennings wins primary for Delaware attorney general, and more

  • California: Legislature sends wave of reform bills to Governor Brown’s desk

  • Massachusetts: Plymouth County DA faces former employee who assails his ethics and policies

  • Oklahoma: In Tulsa’s DA race, challenger wants to shift criminal justice conversation

  • National: Prison strike demands end to felony disenfranchisement, as New York heads to polls under new rules

You can check out our locality-specific index of past newsletters if you wish to review our past coverage of the local politics of criminal justice reform. And you can use this database to review the results of all the primaries I have discussed in the newsletter since June.

Primary results: Kathleen Jennings wins primary for Delaware attorney general, and more

Delaware and Rhode Island settled five primaries I profiled in past newsletters:

Delaware: Kathleen Jennings easily won the Democratic primary for attorney general, an influential position that appoints Delaware’s prosecutors. Jennings is a former prosecutor who supervised criminal prosecutions while working for the state Department of Justice. She now faces the Republican nominee, attorney Bernard Pepukayi.

During the primary, Jennings talked of the need to reduce incarceration; she highlighted her past support for reform legislation like a 2016 bill that repealed some mandatory life sentences. She advocated enabling judges to impose concurrent rather than consecutive sentences. “I support revising our criminal code to avoid the stacking of charges on top of one another for a single crime,” she said in an ACLU candidate questionnaire where she also committed to supporting reductions to—but not the repeal of—mandatory minimum sentences.

The Delaware Supreme Court struck down the death penalty in 2016, but some lawmakers are pushing to overturn that decision. Jennings said during the campaign that she opposes capital punishment. “It has not proven to be an effective deterrent, and the process by which it has been imposed has been ruled unconstitutional,” she told the ACLU. She did not commit to not seeking the death penalty if the legislature does reinstate it, however; in 2013, she testified in the legislature against a bill that would have abolished the death penalty.

Rhode Island: Rhode Island toughened drug sentencing this year, a move that then emerged as a factor in the state’s Democratic primaries. Dubbed Kristen’s Law, the new legislation created a penalty of up to life in prison for people who sell drugs that lead to a fatal overdose. The Appeal recently published an article by Abdullah Shihipar and Meghan Peterson laying out this law’s pitfalls. “Instead of enacting punitive and likely to be ineffective legislation like Kristen’s Law, we must seriously pursue decriminalization and harm reduction,” they write.

Governor Gina Raimondo defeated challenger Matt Brown in Democrats’ gubernatorial primary. Brown, a former secretary of state who ran to Raimondo’s left, criticized her for signing Kristen’s Law, which he said is “doubling down on mass incarceration.”

Three progressive lawmakers who voted against Kristen’s Law faced primary challenges backed by the leadership of the state Democratic Party. State Representatives Moira Walsh and Marcia Ranglin-Vassell survived, while state Senator Jeanine Calkin lost. As I previewed in July, Walsh traced part of the state party’s hostility toward her to her activism against Kristen’s Law. She helped organize a protest against the legislation, taking aim at Raimondo. “While she lamented the children being taken away from their parents at the border, she saw no irony in the fact that she would be signing a law to take other people’s children away today,” Walsh said.

California: Legislature sends a wave of reform bills to Governor Brown’s desk

In recent weeks, the California legislature has adopted a series of bills reforming sentencing and policing rules. Governor Jerry Brown has already signed Senate Bill 10, which overhauls the bail system and which has been denounced by groups including the Vera Institute of Justice and the ACLU for worsening the problem of pretrial detention even as it does away with cash bail. In a New York Times op-ed, David Feige of the Bronx Freedom Fund and Robin Steinberg of the Bail Project argue that SB 10 “will broaden the use of preventive detention” and “institutionalize the imposition of probation-like conditions” on people not yet convicted. But reform advocates are more enthusiastic about other bills, which they helped push through.

Here are eight bills sitting on Brown’s desk as of Wednesday, awaiting his signature or veto:

  • SB 439 and SB 1391 tackle the judicial treatment of children and teenagers. SB 439 would restrict most children under 12 from being prosecuted in juvenile court. “Involvement with the juvenile justice system can be harmful to a child’s health and development,” Senator Holly Mitchell stated at a hearing. SB 1391 would bar anyone under the age of 16 from being prosecuted as an adult, including for offenses involving violence, keeping them instead in the more rehabilitative juvenile system. Both bills were authored by Mitchell and Senator Ricardo Lara.

  • SB 1393 would eliminate the mandate that judges increase a defendant’s sentence by five years for each prior felony conviction. Such sentence enhancements would be up to a judge’s discretion. Also introduced by Lara and Mitchell, this bill builds on other reforms that California has adopted in recent years to curb sentence enhancements.

  • SB 1437 would limit California’s “felony murder” rule. California currently “holds an accomplice in an offense such as robbery liable for a homicide that happens during the crime, regardless of whether the defendant was involved in the killing,” Melody Gutierrez explains. SB 1437, authored by Senator Nancy Skinner, would significantly shrink the circumstances under which someone can be charged for a murder that they did not personally commit. For further information, you can read Abbie Vansickle’s investigation on “felony murder” published by the Marshall Project.

  • AB 2942 would enable prosecutors to reopen a case and recommend that a judge impose a reduced sentence. The Appeal just published an article on this bill. Kyle Barry writes that it could “codify sentence review as part of the prosecutor’s job.” For instance, sentences decided under California’s three-strikes law “could be reduced if prosecutors withdraw a prior conviction (or ‘strike a strike’) from the court’s consideration.”

  • SB 1050 would extend new resources to people exonerated after a wrongful conviction.

  • AB 748 and SB 1421 aim to improve police transparency. AB 748 would mandate the release of body camera footage to the public within 45 days. SB 1421 would require the release of information pertaining to officer shootings and use-of-force investigations. Such records are currently confidential because of a bill signed in 1978 by none other than Jerry Brown, who was also governor at the time. A Sacramento Bee editorial called on Brown to sign SB 1421 and “set his legacy straight” by ending the regime of “excessive secrecy” he created decades ago.

Brown needs to make decisions on each bill soon, and I will review these in later newsletters.

Massachusetts: Plymouth County DA faces former employee who assails his ethics and policies

Massachusetts’s Sept. 4 elections resolved three hotly disputed Democratic primaries for district attorney—and they also added a Democratic candidate where there was none: John Bradley received enough write-in votes in Plymouth County (south of Boston) to make it onto the ballot as the Democratic nominee against longtime Republican DA Timothy Cruz.

Bradley used to work as a prosecutor in Cruz’s office. He filed a wrongful termination lawsuit in 2012, claiming that he was fired for refusing to meet Cruz’s expectation that his employees donate to his reelection campaign. Bradley eventually received $248,000 in a settlement—but not before Cruz raised further eyebrows for choosing to pay a Boston law firm millions to defend him rather than relying on the free services of the attorney general. In recent years, Cruz’s office has also drawn criticism for its handling of cooperating witnesses and its failure to disclose exculpatory evidence, and it has faced allegations of racially selective prosecutions. In addition, Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey sued Cruz in 2016 over his refusal to release information requested by journalists; the Boston Globe called this “the first time in recent memory the attorney general has filed a lawsuit to enforce the state’s public records laws.”

Picking up on the topic of his legal dispute with Cruz, Bradley says that if he is elected he would not allow his employees to contribute to his future campaigns. In an ACLU questionnaire, he also commits to collecting and releasing new data on prosecutorial decisions and their demographic patterns, and he outlines a number of other reforms he wishes to implement: notably, increasing the use of diversion programs and eliminating cash bail for all offenses except those he calls “serious felonies.” “The [DA’s] office has misguided and draconian policies on issues like plea bargaining and minimum mandatory sentencing resulting in racially and financially disparate incarceration,” Bradley told the ACLU. He says that he supports curbing mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses, though he also opposes their elimination.

As DA, Cruz has testified against legislative efforts to curb mandatory minimum sentences, often in coordination with the state’s other prosecutors. Over the years, he has also championed legislative proposals to toughen sentencing, for instance through new mandatory minimum sentences or stricter parole rules.

Oklahoma: In Tulsa’s DA race, challenger wants to shift criminal justice conversation

Jenny Proehl-Day, the Democratic nominee for Tulsa County district attorney, begins answering an ACLU questionnaire by noting that she is a former prosecutor: “I contributed to the issue of mass incarceration and now I am trying to be a part of the solution,” she writes. In a later response, she says,“My entire goal as the DA is to bring criminal justice reform to Tulsa County and to Oklahoma.” In an interview she gave to the podcast “Citizens of Tulsa,” Proehl-Day further explains that the criminal justice system should be organized around the idea that people are rehabilitable. “It’s personal because I think that it’s important for people to look at offenders as more than the crimes that they committed, and more as they’re human beings and they have a history and their past led them to come into the criminal justice system,” she says.

Proehl-Day is running against District Attorney Steve Kunzweiler, a Republican who is seeking a second term. Kunzweiler has opposed past criminal justice reform efforts. In 2016, he spoke out against State Question 780, the ballot proposal that made drug possession into a misdemeanor and raised the threshold of felony theft. Proehl-Day, meanwhile, says that she would limit the use of money bail, implement a unit to review convictions, and not seek life without parole for juveniles.

While Kunzweiler is favored in a county that Donald Trump easily carried in 2016, Proehl-Day frames her candidacy in part as an opportunity to spark a new sort of dialogue. “What I’ve gone through is so much more common than district attorneys would like you to believe,” she tells “Citizens of Tulsa,” referring to family members’ struggle with addiction and mental health. “So I think it’s really important to have these conversations because it’s affecting more people than it’s not.”

National: Prison strike demands end to felony disenfranchisement, as New York heads to polls under new rules

The 19-day prison strike ended on Sept. 9, amidst retaliation against organizers and resistance by public officials to release much information about what took place.

Among strikers’ demands is an end to the disenfranchisement of people with felony convictions. “Prisoners are beginning to coalesce around the push to regain the vote as a means of forwarding the cause of prison reform,” Ed Pilkington reported in The Guardian on the strike’s final day. In addition, formerly incarcerated people are playing a leading role in state efforts to end disenfranchisement. Kira Lerner reported in June on Voices of the Experienced, a New Orleans-based advocacy group that championed a new law narrowing disenfranchisement rules.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced in the spring that he would restore the voting rights of people on parole. But Emma Whitford just reported in The Appeal that, on the eve of the state primary, more than half of the state’s county-level Boards of Elections have not updated eligibility information on their websites, and still say that people on parole are barred from voting. In addition, Cuomo’s executive order restricts the hours at which people convicted of sex offenses can vote in a school, Joseph Spector of the Democrat & Chronicle reports: They can only do so during a two-hour window, from 7 to 9p.m., and the Department of Corrections added a requirement that the parolee obtain “written permission from the parole officer and the school’s superintendent.”

Thanks for reading. We’ll see you next week.

More in Podcasts