Inmates and Emergency Preparedness

Less than a week ago, Hurricane Sandy wreaked havoc on the East Coast.  The human suffering has been tremendous – lives lost, homes destroyed, property and businesses damaged, and millions of lives in chaos as a result of a power shortage. 

Like all environmental disasters, Hurricane Sandy illuminates issues that warrant discussion and could facilitate policy changes moving forward.  Among those issues are: the impact of climate change, infrastructure modernization, the role of government in the event of a disaster, etc.

One issue that not been getting enough attention is how each state manages (or should manage) their inmate population in the event of a disaster.  At a press conference prior to Hurricane Sandy making landfall, Mayor Bloomberg was asked about Riker’s Island, which houses nearly 12,000 inmates.  Mayor Bloomberg opted not to evacuate Riker’s Island.

A sound, thorough and viable evacuation plan for any region should not overlook its inmate population. In fact, under the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment, an evacuation plan that accounts for and accommodates a state’s inmate population may even be seen as a mandate of sorts, as any environmental disaster could impact how an inmate’s basic needs are accommodated.

In fact, stories have surfaced regarding treatment of inmates at facilities that were not evacuated during an environmental disaster.  As Mother Jones [1] reported:

“[Lisa] Ortega, a member of the New York City Jails Action Coalition (JAC) is also concerned by stories she says were told to her by her son and other prisoners on Rikers following Hurricane Irene. “Last year my son said inmates we all put on lockdown, and given sandwiches in their cells instead of being let out to eat,” she says. “The guards told them it was so there would be no ‘panic or possible takeover’ by inmates.” According to her son, the guards also told inmates, “‘If shit goes down, we are out of here.’”

Whether or not these stories are true is unclear, but it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to envision a scenario where an environmental disaster could impact the normal functioning at a facility.  And any disruption will naturally impede their ability to meet the basic needs of prisoners

Logistical nightmare

There is no question that moving inmates out of a disaster area and finding alternative accommodations presents a logistical nightmare.  One has to appreciate the challenges faced by states when constructing an evacuation plan for inmates and prisoners.  Moving thousands of people to a temporary housing facility is always a challenge; but that challenge is magnified by the fact that these individuals must be moved to secure facilities.  After all, the goal remains to protect the general population from these potentially dangerous individuals, while ensuring that our prisoners and inmates are treated in a humane and just manner.

These facilities require adequate power supply, food supplies, water, and manpower to guard over these inmates.  Inmates must be safely transported to these alternative facilities and back to their original facility. These are significant expenses that states may be unwilling to foot in the face of an emergency.

Summary

As environment disasters increase in frequency, it is imperative that states plan responsibly.  These plans must not overlook their inmate population.  A failure to do so could entail a breach of a prisoner’s 8th Amendment rights under the U.S. Constitution.

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