Member Newsletter: Why South Carolina Abandoned Prisoners During Hurricane Florence
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Brian Sonenstein examines the decision not to evacuate South Carolina prisoners from the path of Hurricane Florence and what it tells us about the prison strike’s 10 demands and how incarcerated people are dehumanized.
South Carolina corrections officials refused to evacuate prisoners held in mandatory evacuation zones in the path of Hurricane Florence. Their decision should be placed in the context of this year’s prison strike, the call for which originated in that state.
While around one million people in South Carolina were ordered to flee, the state had no such plans for the few thousand prisoners who are also in danger.
To figure out whether this a good idea, one only needs to reflect on the experience of prisoners in Louisiana who were abandoned to the floods of Hurricane Katrina. Locked in their prisons, incarcerated people had to survive for days in water up to their chests. Hundreds of people were unaccounted for in the aftermath. Texas prisoners survived similar experiences during Hurricane Rita and Harvey.
The dangers of trapping people in a building from which they can’t escape, in the path of a major storm, are glaringly obvious: flooding, toxic mold, lost electricity, disrupted access to food, clean water, sanitation, and medical care in facilities that can barely provide them on a sunny day. And the idea that prisoners will be safer, when, at the same time, officials demand everyone else must leave, is a clear statement about the value of incarcerated lives.
It would be incorrect to view these choices as mistakes. It’s not that prisons in South Carolina, Louisiana, and Texas overlooked evacuation plans for hurricanes. It is that city, county and state governments in these states do not feel there will be a political cost if they do not evacuate prisoners.
This is all happening at the tail end of a prison strike announced in the aftermath of a violent incident at Lee Correctional Institution in South Carolina. The strike’s ten demands were not flashy or new but rather basic affirmations of their humanity. They want what we all want: sanitary and safe living conditions, a fair wage for their labor, access to health care and rehabilitation, and the right to vote. But Americans routinely deny prisoners human rights and disappear them without a second thought. We’re taught from an early age that people who end up in prison are there because they’re violent, untrustworthy, bad people. We’re told it’s in everyone’s interest to remove them and forget about them.
Everything we know that casts doubt on these assumptions—such as over-charging, over-policing, over-sentencing, wrongful convictions, racial and economic disparities, etc.—is subjugated to the more comforting idea that we know who prisoners really are, as though they’re all the same.
Reporters have an important role to play in breaking through these myths about incarceration and bringing reality to the surface. In doing so, we can fight the objectification of prisoners used to deny their human rights. Yet because of these stories, barely anyone bats an eye at the struggles journalists face trying to elucidate the experience of incarceration, even though it’s shared by millions of Americans and their families each year.
Just days before the strike, an incarcerated organizer in South Carolina expressed this dehumanization, disappearance, and objectification to me by comparing it to being hidden away in a warehouse—out of sight and out of mind.
“They’re literally warehousing prisoners across this country today,” the organizer repeated to me throughout our conversation. “We’re being warehoused in poor conditions and we’re being exploited as commodities and as people enslaved for profits.”
It’s easy not to care about objects because they don’t have feelings. It’s easier to leave them behind in a storm than people.
We should all know better by now when it comes to hurricanes and prisons. Yet here we are, making the same choices as a gigantic storm strikes the east coast.
It’s the same situation with the demands, many of which have been a part of prisoner resistance for decades. It is atrocious that they still haven’t been addressed after Attica, Lucasville, Vaughn, or the many other acts of resistance that occur regularly but don’t make headlines.
Prisoners are acutely aware that they are easily and routinely ignored. They understand they may have to face down hurricanes year after year even though everyone knows the dangers. They know they have to make the same demands for basic dignities each year, even though that in itself is so debasing. Yet, they continue to resist in defiance of escalating risks because they believe they have no other choice.
“If we don’t speak up, it’s only going to get worse,” the prisoner told me. “I try to tell prisoners this all the time, we have no choice. Because to say we’re not going to say anything is, to me, continuously being subjected to whatever we’re being subjected to, that we consider unjust, that we consider inhumane. Sometimes we have to understand that we all know that there’s going to be consequences behind us standing up. And that, in itself, is wrong.”