By Christopher Zoukis
Last month, as the National Weather Service was predicting Hurricane Florence could be the “storm of a lifetime,” with “life-threatening” storm surges, the southeastern states in the greatest danger from the oncoming storm made sharply different responses.
In North Carolina, authorities decided to evacuate hundreds of inmates from jails and prisons viewed as vulnerable. Similarly, Virginia relocated roughly 1,000 prisoners from its Indian Creek Correctional Center in Chesapeake, after Gov. Ralph Northam (D) ordered a mandatory evacuation of endangered low-lying coastal regions.
In South Carolina, Gov. Henry McMaster (R) ordered a mandatory evacuation of five storm-threatened counties and advised residents there that they needed “to leave now.” At a press conference days before Hurricane Florence made landfall in his state, McMaster declared the state unwilling “to gamble with the lives of the people of South Carolina. Not a one.” Even so, evacuation orders were not issued for two correctional facilities in those areas.
The larger of these, MacDougall Correctional Institution is a medium-security prison, located northwest of Charleston, housing about 650 men. A spokesperson for the state’s Department of Corrections noted the prison was only about a half mile within the northern and western borders of a county covered by the evacuation order and was also located at least 35 miles from the ocean and at an elevation of 80 feet above sea level. He did not otherwise explain why inmates were not also covered by the mandatory evacuation order, however.
The second corrections facility not to be evacuated, Ridgeland Correctional Institution is another medium-security facility; it houses about 1,000 inmates and is located in Jasper County, one of the five counties covered by the original evacuation order. But, based on weather information updates, the state amended the evacuation order several days after it was originally issued, to remove Jasper and two other counties.
Ironically, the state announced it planned to move 266 inmates from the Palmer Pre-Release Center in Florence, a facility for non-violent inmates due to be released in 36 months or sooner – even though the low-security facility is not within an evacuation zone. The Palmer inmates were sent further inland to a medium-security prison in Turbeville.
The same agency spokesperson claimed all state corrections facilities were amply equipped with food, water, and other supplies needed to ride out a monster storm, including electricity generators capable of going ten days without refueling.
South Carolina frequently experiences severe hurricanes but has not evacuated prison inmates since 1999. In the words of the agency spokesperson, when it comes to inmates in its prisons, the belief has been that it’s “safer to leave them there.”
Critics of that policy were not long in making themselves heard. The South Carolina chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union contrasted the governor’s statement about being unwilling to gamble the life of a single citizen with what they saw as his attitude towards the lives of hundreds of inmates. A statement from the group’s executive director called on the governor to either make sure the prison system was up to par or evacuate inmates, just as he has ordered other residents to leave.
Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, (Middle Street Publishing, 2017), and College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014). He regularly contributes to New York Daily News, Prison Legal News and Criminal Legal News. He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com, PrisonEducation.com and PrisonerResource.com.