Sunday, August 28, 2011

Are Prisoners Expendable during Disasters? FEMA Says Yes.

This week's disgraceful lack of planning for the more than 12,500 inmates at Riker's Island—as other parts of the city were evacuated for Hurricane Irene—is the rule not the exception when it comes to FEMA's thinking (or lack thereof) for the more than 2.3 million adults and 90,000 juveniles in US prisons. This indifference to over 1% of the population of the US is disgraceful and some prison-reform organizations have rightfully called it a crime against humanity. This callous indifference to the incarcerated is not new or unknown. The Orlean's Parish Prison (OPP)—the good folks in charge of the prisons and jails in New Orleans—have been subjected to over 20 lawsuits from prison groups, lawyers, families and prisoners themselves.

The ACLU report describes a history of neglect at OPP, one of the most dangerous and mismanaged jails in the country. This culture of neglect was evident in the days before Katrina, when the sheriff declared that the prisoners would remain "where they belong," despite the mayor's decision to declare the city's first-ever mandatory evacuation. OPP even accepted prisoners, including juveniles as young as 10, from other prison facilities to ride out Hurricane Katrina . As floodwaters rose in OPP buildings, power was lost, and entire buildings were plunged into darkness. Deputies left their posts wholesale, leaving behind prisoners in locked cells, some standing in sewage-tainted water up to their chests. Prisoners went days without food, water and ventilation, and deputies admit that they received no emergency training and were entirely unaware of any evacuation plan. The prisoners were finally evacuated by order of the state after four and a half days of fear and chaos. The ACLU report follows the prisoners as they were transferred to jails and prisons around Louisiana. Thousands of the male prisoners were first transported to the Elayn Hunt Correctional Center, where they were placed outdoors in a yard with inadequate food, medical care, adequate sanitation or even cots.

Here are just two stories from the transcripts of the ACLU lawsuit against the OPP:

"Renard Reed, a guard at OPP's psychiatric ward who reported to work before the hurricane out of a sense of camaraderie and shared responsibility. Like many other guards, Renard was locked in during his shift to prevent desertion, and was then ordered to go to the roof with a shotgun and shoot anyone trying to leave one of the flooded buildings. He was still stranded at the prison long after the prisoners were evacuated."

"Ashley George, a 13-year-old girl housed in OPP's Youth Center, who was moved to an area adjacent to an adult male holding area where the men watched her use the toilet. As the building began to flood, Ashley spent days in water up to her neck. Adult prisoners rescued Ashley and the other children from the waters. After being taken to the bridge for evacuation, Ashley was lucky enough to be given a bag of potato chips and water. She reports again being forced to relieve herself publicly and that pregnant girls received no assistance or treatment."

Most of Riker's Island is only 20 feet above sea level and connected to Queens by a single bridge. In addition there is a 800 bed floating jail barge—the Vernon C. Bain Correctional Facility—anchored off the north tip of the island. It has no power to move and no propulsion engine. So what is the plan for these nearly 13,000 people (some who are simply awaiting trial because they can't pay bail)? "We are not evacuating Rikers Island," Mayor Michael Bloomberg said in a news conference in which he was demanding the evacuation of 400,000 other New Yorkers and shutting down the subways, buses and airports. Technically Riker's has no flood rating (the famous A, B, C system for determining flood areas) but all the surrounding islands, including uninhabitable ones, are designated an obvious A level—the highest chance of flooding. On late Saturday, just hours before the hurricane was to hit NYC the mayor's office released a statement to stem off complaints from the Legal Aid Society, city council members and prisoner advocacy groups. The statement simply said there was “a sound emergency plan” for Rikers and the prison barge. As of now no one has seen this plan, no details have been released and reporters' attempts to get more details have so far been rebuffed. Mayor Bloomberg's lackadaisical post-hurricane response,“Well, we didn't lose any prisoners or jails,” seems woefully inadequate.

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