Chandra Bozelko writes the award-winning blog Prison Diaries. You can follow her on Twitter at @ChandraBozelko and email her at firstname.lastname@example.org. She is a member of our White Collar Support Group that meets online on Zoom on Monday evenings.
Originally posted on The Pueblo Chieftain on Sep 18, 2020 at 7:24 AM
Columns share an author’s personal perspective.
As fires threatened Coffee Creek State Prison in Oregon Sept. 10, guards evacuated it. When women arrived at a new facility, no clean clothes awaited them and there were no mattresses. In the 8 ½-hour bus trip, they were forced to soil themselves and throw used tampons out the window, Oregon Public Broadcasting reported.
More than 700 inmates moved out of a federal prison in Beaumont, Texas, in late August before Hurricane Laura hit. And more were taken out of Terrebonne Parish, Louisiana, jail before Hurricane Sally pounded the Gulf Coast.
These evacuations and transfers haven’t been totally calamitous but they came close. Violence in prisons is more likely during transport, says one study from City University of New York’s Graduate Center, probably because there are few firm plans for unexpected transfers of large groups; the Coffee Creek staff operated from an earthquake plan in place even though the chance of a major earthquake affecting Oregon is slim, according to experts.
The backup generator blew during Hurricane Sandy when I was at York Correctional Institution in Connecticut. Because all the locks were electric, none of the cells were bolted. I’m still not sure that any locked door stood in my way, but plenty of skittish guards did. An unlockable prison frightened them.
It’s why every single prison and jail must have an emergency preparedness plan for every conceivable natural disaster and breakdown of protocols, like the busted generator, on file with the governor’s office in the state where they’re located.
Only about 29% of facilities have a dedicated disaster department and plan, according to a 2013 student dissertation on disaster practices in prisons – the only comprehensive document on such preparedness in existence.
The only person or agency to bother to collect this information was a candidate for a doctoral degree in Law and Policy at Northeastern University. The Federal Emergency Management Agency doesn’t have a depository of information, nor does the Department of Justice. If Dr. Melissa Savilonis Surette hadn’t undertaken this inquiry, no one would know how little prepared prisons are.
Not only did Surette fill this informational hole, she exposed that the people who run these places don’t care enough to answer questions about it. When she sent surveys to various wardens, the response rate was low.
The lack of a plan can be deadly. More than 6,500 inmates were in Orleans Parish Prison during Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and they weren’t evacuated until flooding in the first-floor cells was chest-high, according to Human Rights Watch. No one compiled records of inmate deaths from that storm, but 517 inmates were never accounted for.
In 2018 Hurricane Florence struck South Carolina and two detainees drowned while they were being taken from a locked psychiatric facility; the deputies transporting them ignored warnings to take another route, according to a federal lawsuit. Manslaughter charges remain pending against them.
We think the least dangerous prison is the one that’s tightly sealed, but that’s not always the case. Essential to any prison’s safety is its ability to release people without incident; some situations make confinement the less-safe option.
This became exceedingly clear during the COVID-19 epidemic, when the density of prisons made transmission more likely behind bars and made it less likely to be contained. Thousands of inmates were let go, mostly because no correctional facility has an Influenza Specialty Care Unit to isolate people with communicable diseases. While we labeled this response “early release” because it was selective, it was really an evacuation.
But don’t assume that an evacuation is an evacuation, and as long as people get out it’s a success. That’s only partly true. Transporting inmates to a field in an earthquake would be wise – most earthquake deaths are due to falling structures or debris. But that same field in a fire would be catastrophic; fire can burn through grass at 14 miles per hour. That means a football field would be burned in less than 17 seconds. Even the routes to take in flight are important, as the deaths of the two women in South Carolina prove. Emptying out a prison in a natural disaster is no time to improvise.
What underpins this complete neglect of disaster preparedness, of course, is the idea that inmate lives are expendable; preparedness is a safeguard on their lives. The good citizen who believes that inmate deaths justify forgoing an evacuation plan forgets that the likelihood an inmate will die is lower than the chance he’ll escape. A man broke out of a Texas jail Sept. 4 because of damage from Hurricane Laura – and none died. Inmates sprung themselves from a British Virgin Islands prison during Hurricane Irma in 2017 leaving 100 empty beds – but zero packed body bags.
In the choice between a dead prisoner or one who’s roaming the streets, paranoid and desperate because he’s the subject of a fervent hunt, I say choose a vetted emergency plan instead – before either of those events happens.
A global pandemic comes around every century or so; I understand why a facility wouldn’t have had a plan for COVID-19 on file. But hurricanes, many of them, whirl in annually and threaten life and property. We expect fires on the West Coast every year; the combination of wind events and dry conditions practically guarantee them, because human folly – gender reveal parties with fireworks near dry brush and people hammering metal to create sparks – is so reliable.
Disasters are routine for prisons, inside and out. Yet 71% of prisons and jails haven’t formulated any disaster preparedness scheme to respond to them. That must end. No prison or jail should be allowed to operate without one.