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South Carolina failed to evacuate a prison. Inmates are now sitting ducks in Hurricane Florence’s path.

"You’re locked in a concrete box. Windows bolted, no way out except if a person turns the key."

by Tess Owen
Sep 14 2018, 5:54pm

Inmates at MacDougall Correctional, a medium-security prison in Dorchester County, South Carolina, are scared. The facility is the only one in the state under mandatory evacuation order — one that prison officials and the governor decided not to abide by.

“You’re locked in a concrete box. Windows bolted, no way out except if a person turns the key,” a spokesperson for Jailhouse Lawyers Speak told VICE News. “We have little faith in guards remaining on post if the water comes in and starts to rise.”

But Gov. Henry McMaster decided the 650 inmates at the prison are safer staying where they are to ride out Hurricane Florence. That means guards and other necessary staff also have had to stay behind. And now that Florence has made landfall in North Carolina and is expected to roll into South Carolina later Friday, the state has lost its window of opportunity to evacuate those inmates and staff. As the storm continues to batter the coasts of the Carolinas and Virginia with heavy rains and winds, inmates at other facilities in coastal areas remain at risk as well.

One inmate at MacDougall got himself sent to “the hole” — also known as solitary confinement — on purpose because it’s on a higher floor and safer from the potential of flooding, his friend Keiz Ali, a radio DJ based in upstate South Carolina, told VICE News. “I just pray he is safe. Yes he’s in jail, but he’s a human and deserves to be outside of harm’s way.”

State officials said earlier in the week that they’d been monitoring the situation to determine whether evacuation of the prison was necessary.

“We’re making our decisions, considered, thoughtful decisions, based on the facts,” Gov. McMaster said at a press conference Wednesday. “And the facts as it concerns MacDougall is that it’s the safest place for them to be at this time.”

County officials in Charleston also opted to hold off from evacuating more than 1,000 detainees from the Sheriff Al Cannon Detention Center, a jail housing male, female and juvenile inmates, according to The State. That facility is in an area labeled especially dangerous and prone to flooding.

South Carolina’s prison system director told New Yorker reporter Daniel Gross that evacuating inmates would be complicated, given that there isn’t much space in facilities inland, and the transportation process would be time-consuming due to heavy traffic.

But officials in North Carolina and Virginia decided not to risk it. More than 3,000 inmates were evacuated from state facilities near the North Carolina coast earlier this week, according to Jerry Higgins, communications officer for prisons at the state’s Department of Public Safety.

“They were deemed in peril and in jeopardy because they were in the storm’s path,” Higgins said. “It was decided in consult with emergency management, local law enforcement and the counties that we needed to get those folks out of there as quickly as possible.”

"You’re locked in a concrete box. Windows bolted, no way out except if a person turns the key."

And in Virginia, approximately 1,000 prisoners were relocated from Indian Creek Correctional Center in Chesapeake on Monday evening. After Florence changed path and took aim at the Carolinas, Virginia’s evacuation order was lifted Friday. Nonetheless, human rights firm Nexus Derechos Humano sued three Virginia sheriffs for their decision not to evacuate nearly 2,500 inmates from their jails in an area that is especially prone to flooding, according to The State.

Though Hurricane Florence was downgraded to a category 1 hurricane overnight, its forecast isn’t looking any less grim. In fact, meteorologists said the slow pace of the storm raises the potential for damaging, heavy rains, and flooding.

Meteorologists have described the hurricane as the “storm of a lifetime” that could leave millions without power for months.

Although MacDougall is the only state prison that’s in a mandatory evacuation zone, there are other facilities that may also be impacted. For example, Lieber Correctional, a maximum security facility, is just barely outside the evacuation zone, about eight miles away from Macdougall.

Videos taken during a recent storm by inmates at Lieber show that the facility is prone to flooding. “That’s a normal T-storm,” said Keiz Ali, who shared the videos with VICE News. “Can you imagine what will come of this?”

On Wednesday, South Carolina Department of Corrections Director Bryan Stirling assured reporters that officials were stockpiling supplies at facilities that could be affected by Florence, including medicine and food. Stirling also stressed that the prison has a large generator that will be able to provide power for more than a week, should they lose electricity.

South Carolina officials also said earlier this week that they’d relocated 266 inmates at the minimum-security Palmer Pre-Release Center in Florence County due to “security concerns.” Stirling explained that those concerns stemmed from the fact that the facility isn’t fortified like most prisons, and doesn’t have fencing.

South Carolina Department of Corrections did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Although moving inmates can be a costly, time-consuming operation that carries its own risks, such as the potential for escapes, history has shown that leaving prisoners behind can also have dire consequences. Inmates who were left at a federal prison near Houston during Hurricane Harvey in August 2017 reported food shortages, lack of drinking water, and sewage flooding throughout the prison. Some were even made to weather the storm inside their cells.

City officials were also accused of abandoning inmates at the New Orleans Parish prison during Hurricane Katrina in 2005, as flood waters seeped into the facilities. One female prisoner said when water in her dorm reached chest level, she was locked into a facility with male inmates. Another inmate recalled seeing dead bodies floating on floor waters by the medical center. Others said they were locked in their cells for days thinking they were going to die, as flood water reached as high as six feet. These accounts were among 400 inmate testimonials told the American Civil Liberties Union.

“This storm is slated to be one of the worst we have ever seen, and if Gov. McMaster truly does not want to ‘gamble with the lives of the people of South Carolina,” he needs to make sure that the prison system is up to par,” the ACLU wrote in a statement, “or evacuate the inmates just as he has ordered the rest of us to do.”

Cover image: (Travis Long/The News & Observer vía AP)