As Florida state and local officials urge South Florida residents to evacuate before Hurricane Irma makes landfall there Sunday morning, nearly 4,500 inmates inside facilities in evacuation zones have not been moved.
The Florida Department of Corrections evacuated dozens of prisons on Thursday and Friday, but federal, state and local officials have left inmates at facilities in the Miami-Dade county’s most vulnerable areas.
“I’ve been getting some calls from inmates, but none of them have been told anything,” said an attorney with Miami-Dade’s public defender office who requested anonymity for fear of being reprimanded for speaking to the media. “Family members of the clients are in the dark.”
Miami’s federal prison, one county jail, and two state prisons are all located in Zone B of Miami’s storm surge planning map. The largest facility is the federal prison in downtown Miami with 1,316 inmates. The county jail near Marlins Park has 1,064 inmates. The two state facilities located near Homestead have nearly 2,000 inmates combined.
On Thursday, Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez issued evacuation orders for residents in Zones A, B and C, but so far these four prison and jail facilities in Zone B have not been evacuated.
“The evacuation is very thoughtfully done to get those inmates into the safest facilities we have for them,” said Florida Department of Corrections spokesperson Michelle Glady.
In addition to inmates, Miami-Dade public defenders interviewed by VICE News say there are around 700 people on house arrest with ankle monitors in Miami-Dade county, and many are confused about whether or not to evacuate.
On Wednesday the Miami-Dade County Department of Corrections sent an email to attorneys at the public defender’s office announcing they would be moving around 120 people on house arrest into custody for the duration of the storm, according to four public defenders familiar with the situation. Attorneys rushed to get their clients on house arrest in front of judges late Wednesday hoping to keep them out of jail before the court closed for storm preparation on Thursday. The corrections department could not confirm how many people had been moved from house arrest into jails.
“Corrections determined a random grouping of people to go back into custody for the duration of the storm and we don’t know how long that will be,” said Nora Lewis, an attorney with Miami-Dade’s public defender office. “I’m still as of now unsure as of how corrections made that list.”
Local courts in Miami closed Thursday through the weekend, putting a pause on trials and arraignment hearings, which are supposed to happen within 24 hours of an arrest, meaning inmates will be spending more time in jail than usual. Similar delays happened last week when Harris County courts in Houston, Texas closed during Hurricane Harvey.
“They’ve been calling me about issues, ‘When am I going to get my case on calendar?’,” an attorney with the public defender’s office said. “Many have trial on Monday.”
This isn’t the first hurricane Florida corrections officials have had to prepare for. In 1992 Hurricane Andrew completely leveled state prison Dade Correctional Institution, which is now called Homestead Correctional Institution and houses 727 inmates today. Dade and Homestead Correctional Institutions are the two southernmost located state prisons. Neither have evacuated.