Disaster Planning In the Prison System

For many people, the worst imaginable disaster at a prison would be, of course, a prison break. The purpose of a prison is to keep people incarcerated and anything that might threaten that would, naturally, be a disaster. Which means that, from the perspective of society at large, disaster planning for prisons should be primarily about preventing escapes. Less attention is paid to the fact that prisons, like other facilities, are vulnerable to earthquakes, hurricanes, and other events for reasons beyond the potential for prisoners to get out as a result of structural damage or chaos.

In August, with Hurricane Irene moving towards New York, city officials chose not to evacuate Rikers, although it was in the path of the hurricane. Rikers is actually a jail, not a prison, but the problems with Rikers highlighted issues across the jail and prison system in the United States. City officials claimed it would be safer for people to ride out the storm there than to attempt an organised evacuation, and many people were, rightly, both concerned and outraged about the situation. Fortunately, by the time the hurricane reached New York, it was weak enough that a catastrophe didn’t occur at Rikers, but it could have.

Some interesting facts about Rikers; it’s an extremely large facility with numerous juveniles, and it’s a place where many people are held pending trial. New York’s justice system is extremely clogged, which means that people can sit in Rikers for an extended period of time before going to trial, something many commentators seemed concerned about.

People seemed especially offended that people who hadn’t been convicted of any crimes were being put in harm’s way, highlighting, again, the social attitudes about prisons and prisoners; people might not have responded with such horror to a similar situation at a prison filled with convicts. Furthermore, Rikers is also the largest mental health facility in the US, thanks to the fact that our mental health system is deeply broken. This issue wasn’t widely discussed during the hurricane, which is unfortunate, because the situation at Rikers is something that more people should be aware of. Many of the mentally ill people there are, after all, awaiting trial as well.

In fact, this is an issue that has come up before. In the wake of Katrina, there was a snarled mess of suspended constitutional rights, missing prisoners, and chaos that highlighted the lack of preparation for disasters. As the New Orleans Parish illustrated, as Rikers showed, many prisons and jails in the US are not adequately prepared for natural disasters, both from a human rights perspective and a basic safety one.

Prisoners and detainees still, for the most part, retain constitutional rights, with some glaring exceptions. Which means that, legally, holding facilities need to be prepared to uphold those rights, even in adverse conditions. The right to due process is not suspended. People can still file habeus writs. Prisoners and detainees cannot be thrown out like so much garbage, even in a disaster, which means the facilities that hold them need to think about how they are going to protect those rights in the event of catastrophe. Whether that involves temporary courts, shifting prisoners to outside facilities, or other measures, the constitution is still in effect.

And from a safety perspective, prisoners are in extreme danger if they’re locked in facilities that are vulnerable to natural disasters and no plans are made to evacuate them. The first concern with earthquakes, hurricanes, and similar events should be getting prisoners to a safe location. Which, incidentally, would also secure them; since many people seem more concerned about that issue than whether prisoners should be left to die in disasters, I feel obligated to point this out.

New York didn’t cave under public pressure. Rikers was left filled. And this event will repeat itself, over and over again. Given the increase in severe weather in United States, this means that the probability of a tragedy is increasing. It might not be the next storm, but it could be the one after that. Or it could be the next earthquake. There’s no way to know, because disasters are not predictable, and it can be hard to determine, in advance, the scope of damage an event will cause. Which is why plans need to be in place now to respond effectively and appropriately.

Prison facilities do have disaster preparedness plans, but are they adequate to the need? How old are these plans, and what is their primary focus? Securing prisoners, or keeping them safe? In states like California where prison overcrowding is a significant and growing issue, are those plans adequate for the needs of the prison population? Or will only some prisoners be saved, because prisons don’t have plans in place to deal with 120% of their permitted population? In that situation, who gets to decide which prisoners should be moved to safety, and which should be left behind?

These are issues that prisons need to be thinking about now, not after the wakeup call of a significant disaster. New York City officials had no way of knowing, given the dire forecasts for the storm, what the situation at Rikers would be like. They claim that it wasn’t included in the evacuation area because it wasn’t facing as much risk as low-lying areas of New York City, which may well be the case, but what if it had been in the danger zone? And what if the storm had been more severe than it was? These are what ifs that should be considered in advance, not pondered with a storm making landfall and plowing its way up the coastline. Rikers could have been evacuated, if plans had been made ahead of time. Jails and prisons need to be better prepared for events like this, because there will be a next time, and the outcome of that next time is an unknown.