South Carolina officials don’t plan to move at least 650 inmates from a prison located in a county that's under mandatory evacuation order as Category 4 Hurricane Florence approaches.
“We’re monitoring the situation,” South Carolina Department of Corrections spokesperson Dexter Lee told VICE News. “Previously, it’s been safer to stay in place with the inmates rather than move to another location.”
MacDougall Correctional Facility, a Level 2 medium-security prison for men, is located in Berkeley County, one of five counties — along with Charleston, Dorchester, Georgetown and Horry — that Gov. Henry McMaster placed under mandatory evacuation order Tuesday morning. The facility has capacity for nearly 700 inmates, and Lee said that all corrections officers will be required to work their shifts, as well.
As Florence takes aim at the Carolinas and Virginia, the National Hurricane Center has warned of a “life-threatening storm surge,” “catastrophic flooding from a prolonged and exceptionally heavy rainfall event,” and “damaging hurricane-force winds.”
South Carolina has not evacuated any of its prisons during a hurricane since 1999, when MacDougall was evacuated for Hurricane Floyd, according to a report last year by the Post and Courier.
Just one state away in Virginia, however, officials evacuated inmates from Indian Creek Correctional Center on Monday night in response to Gov. Ralph Northam’s mandatory evacuation order for people living in low-lying areas near the state’s coast. And in North Carolina, officials were preparing to evacuate inmates from three facilities located in the eastern part of the state on Tuesday as well as inmates from another five facilities Wednesday.
“We’re moving inmates and staff because of what we feel is safety concerns based on the information we have. It’s safer to move operations away from the storm,” Jerry Higgins, communications officer for prisons at North Carolina’s Department of Public Safety, told VICE News.
On one hand, evacuation can be an expensive and time-consuming endeavor, which comes with its own set of risks, including inmates possibly escaping in the process.
“These aren’t tiny facilities,” Higgins said. “It’s an operation to get buses and make sure you have the staff there to transport offenders from one facility to another. It’s a pretty big operation, but it’s one that’s been in the planning for days.”
But opting to leave inmates behind has also had dire consequences in the past.
Inmates left behind at a federal prison near Houston following Hurricane Harvey in August 2017 reported food shortages, no drinking water, and sewage flooding. Many inmates weathered the storm still locked in their cells. And as Puerto Rico reeled in the devastated aftermath of Hurricane Maria, the U.S. Bureau of Prisons began evacuating inmates from its easternmost facility in Rio Grande due to sustained power outages. During the chaos of the relocation process after the hurricane, 13 inmates escaped.
City officials also reportedly abandoned inmates at the New Orleans Parish Prison during Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Human Rights Watch reported that correctional officers left more than 600 inmates in one building without supervision to weather the storm. Some inmates say they were left locked in their cells for days as flood water seeped into the jail, eventually reaching chest level, before they were evacuated.
Cover image: Screenshot for South Carolina Department of Corrections video