Officials say Hurricane Michael, now a Category 4, will be the strongest storm to ever hit the Florida Panhandle. But for some Florida prisoners, evacuating won’t be an option.The storm is set to make landfall Wednesday afternoon with sustained winds of 145 miles an hour and expected storm surges of over 14 feet. Mandatory evacuation orders are in place for coastal regions in at least 13 Florida counties.
On Tuesday evening, Florida corrections officials evacuated seven satellite facilities in the path of Michael, primarily work-release centers and work camps, which generally have lower security than regular prisons. Inmates at Franklin Correctional work camp, Gulf Forestry Camp, Panama City Community Release Center, Pensacola Community Release Center, Tallahassee Community Release Center and Shisa House West were evacuated.But there are thousands of inmates in at least 12 state prisons in the panhandle, which is expected to bear the brunt of the storm, that aren’t being evacuated. None of those facilities lie directly in mandatory evacuation zones, but some, like the Bay Correctional Institution in Panama City, sit right on the edge of an area deemed extremely prone to flooding, according to FEMA maps.“Evacuation determinations are made in the best interest of the inmates and public safety,” Michelle Glady, communications director for Florida’s Department of Communications, told VICE News. “Several factors are considered such as wind ratings, facility age, flooding history, etc.”Glady added that they have staff “monitoring the storm 24 hours a day to ensure inmates and staff have safe, secure housing.” Officials said in a statement Tuesday that they’ve stockpiled additional water and food supplies at facilities that might be impacted by the storm.Read more: South Carolina failed to evacuate a prison. Inmates are now sitting ducks in Hurricane Florence’s path.
With the storm poised to make landfall, officials say that evacuating those facilities is no longer an option.The Bureau of Prisons also opted not to evacuate the some 800 inmates from a federal prison in Tallahassee, which is also expected to be impacted by the hurricane.The rapid intensification of Hurricane Michael over the last two day, from a tropical depression to a category 4 hurricane, caught many Florida officials off guard — unlike Florence, which made its way slowly towards the Carolinas, giving officials plenty of time to prepare and residents to evacuate.Last year, some 7,000 inmates were evacuated from facilities in south and central Florida ahead of Hurricane Irma — again, mostly from work release centers and work camps. But thousands were left behind to weather the storm. Months later, guards from one prison in Miami-Dade county filed complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, citing “nightmarish” conditions they and the inmates were left to contend with, including flooding and food shortages, according to the Miami New Times.State officials in South Carolina recently came under fire for choosing not to evacuate the thousands of inmates in facilities deemed to be in Tropical Storm Florence’s path. It was a gamble, given that South Carolina was largely spared from the impact of Florence, but history has shown that making that gamble can equally come with dire consequences.In the aftermath of Florence, two female mental health detainees drowned in the back of a sheriff’s van in South Carolina after deputies circumvented barriers and drove into a flooded highway.Inmates in a federal prison near Houston after Hurricane Harvey in Aug. 2017 reported sewage flooding, no drinking water and food shortages. City officials were accused of abandoning inmates at New Orleans Parish Prison during Hurricane Katrina in 2005, as flood waters seemed into the facilities. According to inmate testimonials provided to American Civil Liberties Union, one inmate recalled seeing dead bodies floating on flood waters by the medical center. Others said that they were locked in their cells thinking they were going to drown, as flood water reached as high as six feet.Cover image: PANAMA CITY BEACH, FL - OCTOBER 10: Waves crash along a pier as the outer bands of Hurricane Michael arrive on October 10, 2018 in Panama City Beach, Florida. The hurricane is forecast to hit the Florida Panhandle at a possible category 4 storm. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)