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Prisoner Advocates Question Evacuation Plan for 12,000 Inmates in Path of Hurricane Sandy

Amy Armstrong

As much of New York prepares for the possibility of evacuation, 12,000 inmates at Rikers Island, which lies in the water between Queens and the Bronx, will remain in the facility throughout Hurricane Sandy’s worst wind, rain and waves.

New York Mayor Bloomberg made this clear at a press conference over the weekend, when he replied in response to a question about the safety of the 12,000 inmates, “”Rikers Island, the land is up where they are and jails are secured. Don’t worry about anybody getting out.”

In 2011, Bloomberg faced backlash when Rikers Island was left blank on the map showing evacuation zones for the city. Though Hurricane Irene resulted in the unprecedented evacuation of 250,000 New Yorkers, officials acknowledged that there was no evacuation plan for the prison. After the Centre for Constitutional Rights issued a statement urging that the prisoners’ lives should not be treated as less valuable than those of other New Yorkers,” the mayor’s office said that it had reviewed the safety of the island and found that it did not need to be evacuated.

This year, the New York City Department of Correction is apparently better-prepared to answer questions about the fate of the inmates at Rikers. Over the weekend, as Jean Casella and James Ridgeway note at Solitary Watch, it posted a notice on its website explaining:

Given its elevation, Rikers Island can withstand any storm up to and including a Category 4 hurricane. Rikers Island facilities are NOT in low-lying areas, and therefore like nearby small islands Roosevelt Island and City Island, is not seriously threatened by severe flooding.

The personal safety of New York City Department of Correction (NYCDOC) staff and the inmate population is clearly our top priority and in the highly unlikely event that an evacuation would become necessary, it would occur. The NYCDOC response to an unprecedented disaster of this magnitude would be integrated of course, into a city or region-wide strategy. The City has carefully reviewed Rikers Island, as it has done with the entire city, and no section of Rikers Island facilities are located in Hurricane Evacuation Zone A.

But prisoner advocates are questioning this espoused commitment to inmate safety. Lisa Ortega, a member of New York City Jails Action Coalition whose 16 year-old son was locked up in Rikers during Hurricane Irene, told Solitary Watch, Last year my son said inmates were all put on lockdown, and given sandwiches in their cells instead of being let out to eat. The guards told them it was so there would be no panic or possible takeover’ by inmates.” Ortega also said that that her son was told by guards, If shit goes down, we are out of here.” Since the prison is on an island, with the bridge to Queens as the only possible exit, Ortega believes that the city should develop and share a more detailed evacuation plan.

As evidence of what could happen, activists point to the horrific conditions suffered by Orleans parish prisoners during Hurricane Katrina. A 2006 report from the ACLU details the lack of regard for the prisoners’ well-being:

[A] 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 facilities to ride out the storm.

As floodwaters rose in the 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. Even some prison guards were left locked in at their posts to fend for themselves, unable to provide assistance to prisoners in need.

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