Hurricane Dorian ravished the Bahamas this weekend. And now it’s headed to the southeastern U.S. where it could bring “life-threatening storm surge and dangerous winds,” according to the National Hurricane Center.
Mandatory evacuations have been issued for parts of the coast, and state prisons in Dorian’s path are in those zones. It appears some more prepared than others. Florida has evacuated more than 4,000 incarcerated people in preparation for the now Category 2 hurricane. Another 1,930 incarcerated individuals have been evacuated from Georgia’s state prisons. Meanwhile, South Carolina’s incarcerated people are sheltering in place in the single facility that lies within the state’s evacuation zone.
Winds are expected to reach 110 miles per hour, and up to 10 inches of rain is forecasted to fall in parts of the Georgia and South Carolina coasts. The main concern here is storm surge as the eye of the storm won’t make landfall, but all that wind and rain can still cause some major damage, especially with flooding as we’ve seen in years past.
In preparation for all this chaos, the Florida Department of Corrections evacuated 4,407 incarcerated people as of Tuesday, according to a news release. This is a stark contrast to the state’s response last year when Hurricane Michael hit. Despite mandatory evacuations in place elsewhere, the department evacuated only about 850 incarcerated people— that is, until Hurricane Michael hit and damaged a bunch of facilities. At that point, the state was forced to evacuate nearly 5,000 incarcerated people. It’s being much more proactive this time around, and that’s a positive development, said David Pellow, the director of the Global Environmental Justice Project at the University of California at Santa Barbara.
“It’s a good sign that governmental officials and prison authorities seem to have gotten the message, at least in this case, that these storms are not to be underestimated,” Pellow told Earther. “As we know with global climate change and climate disruption, we can only expect that hurricanes and other extreme weather events are going to become more intense and more severe, and Hurricane Dorian is the latest example of that.”
The Florida Department of Corrections hasn’t yet returned Earther’s request for comment regarding how last year’s hurricane season influenced its response this year or to tell us how many of those evacuated are underage, but we’ll update once we hear back.
In South Carolina, however, the Department of Corrections isn’t preparing with evacuations but with a shelter in place order at the Ridgeland Correctional Institution, communications director Chrysti Shain told Earther. Some incarcerated people who require medical care—Shain wouldn’t disclose the specific number due to “security reasons”—have been evacuated.
This is the only facility that sits within the state’s mandatory evacuation zone; it’s also made of concrete and steel, infrastructural updates that came after Hurricane Hugo in 1989. According to the South Carolina Department of Corrections, the facility took a direct hit from Hurricane Matthew in 2016 “with no damage.” The department has prepared the institution for loss of power or access to outside resources by supplying it with enough food, water, and generator fuel to last a few weeks for the 950 incarcerated people housed there.
While loss of supplies is always a major concern for prisons during hurricanes, so is flooding. You can have all the supplies in the world, but if enough water gets into a building, human safety becomes seriously compromised. That’s especially the case in prisons where the people living there can’t leave their cells if water begins pouring in, much less evacuate on their own. After Hurricane Katrina, many incarcerated people were stuck without supervision in chest-high water with no access to food or water for days.
“If you’re in prison, you have zero control over where you’re based or where you’re housed and whether or not you’re being evacuated,” Pellow said. “That’s up to, of course, the prison officials, governmental authorities, and time and time again those prisoners have not been evacuated in the past, causing great risk and potential lethal threats to prisoners.”
Whether it’s incarcerated people fighting wildfires or incarcerated people facing hurricanes head-on, they face growing risks in a warming, more volatile world. Unfortunately, they aren’t free to do anything to stop it.