Thirteen prisoners escaped from a prison in Puerto Rico last Thursday, and two are still at large as the island struggles to maintain law and order in the wake of Hurricane Maria.
The escape happened after 900 inmates in Puerto Rico’s easternmost prison in Rio Grande were evacuated to another facility before the storm tore through the island last Wednesday.
The escapees are just one headache for the beleaguered prison system in Puerto Rico, which includes one federal and more than 30 local prisons holding thousands of inmates.
The U.S. Bureau of Prisons began to evacuate Inmates at Puerto Rico’s federal prison in Guaynabo — which holds 1,389 people — on Monday due to “difficulties in securing supplies and maintaining power.” The agency would not say whether those inmates are relocating to mainland U.S. or other areas in Puerto Rico.
A week after the hurricane struck the island, very little is known about the conditions for inmates who live in the island’s prisons, which are clustered near high-risk flood zones on the coasts. As the days go by with no communication from prison facilities, families of inmates in Puerto Rico are more and more desperate for updates about their loved ones, who they have not been able to visit since Sept. 18.
The phone line and website for the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation are down, and many people have tried unsuccessfully to inquire about their relatives via Facebook.
Secretary of the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, Erik Rolón, said Tuesday that the department’s central office is flooded, and prison facilities suffered “minor damage,” but assured the public that the department is keeping inmates safe.
“The entire [inmate] population is alive,” Rolón told El Nuevo Día. “I understand the importance of seeing family, even more so in difficult times like these, but that depends on how fast we recover as a country. My goal is that maybe next week we can touch the issue.”
A woman who has been trying to reach the corrections department through its Facebook page said her son is an inmate at a prison in Guayama.
“I live in San Antonio, that’s why I’m so worried,” Lorna Yamira Colon, 41, said via Facebook. “My family there has not been able to communicate with anyone and it’s too difficult for them to get to the prison in Guayama now.”
During Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans officials abandoned some inmates in their flooded cells for several days leading to chaos and attempted escapes. After Hurricane Harvey hit Houston in August, inmates reported dire conditions in the federal prison there, including food shortages and sewage flooding. Miami officials decided thousands of inmates would “shelter in place” as Florida braced itself for Hurricane Irma earlier this month.
Only 27 percent of Puerto Rico has cell phone service, making it very difficult for people to communicate with authorities or call 911. The police in San Juan reported several robberies on Tuesday, according to El Nuevo Día. Officials said they have made 43 arrests for violating the “dry law” prohibiting the sale of alcohol and 11 arrests for curfew violations.
Superintendent of the Puerto Rico Police Michelle Fraley said Wednesday that her agency is low on officers and resources, “opening the door so that break-ins and other types of crimes can’t be prevented.”