Regardless What Happens With Hurricane Irene, Rikers Island Will Not Be Evacuated

The entire East Coast is preparing for Hurricane Irene. For New York City, according to NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg, this means a shutdown of the MTA and the first mandatory evacuation in NYC’s history, which will affect roughly 250,000 people.  It does not, however, mean that anything will be done about those at Rikers Island. To quote Jean Casella and James Ridgeway’s “Locked Up and Left Behind: New York’s Prisoners and Hurricane Irene,” “Rikers Island, which lies in the waters between Queens and the Bronx, is not highlighted at all [on the city’s evacuation map], meaning it is not to be evacuated under any circumstances.” Let me repeat that, just in case you somehow missed it. It is not be to evacuated under any circumstances. 

No matter what Hurricane Irene does, no matter the potential damage or death toll, there is no plan to evacuate Rikers Island. It’s not just that there is no current intention of doing so: there is literally no evacuation plan for Rikers Island, not even a hypothetical plan. Casella and Ridgeway write,

According to the New York City Department of Corrections’ own website, more than three-quarters of Rikers Island’s 400 acres are built on landfill–which is generally thought to be more vulnerable to natural disasters. Its ten jails have a capacity of close to 17,000 inmates, and normally house at least 12,000, including juveniles and large numbers of prisoners with mental illness–not to mention pre-trial detainees who have yet to be convicted of any crime[emphasis added].

How can this be? In case you somehow missed it, Rikers Island is an island. Surrounded by water, as all islands are. All of the land around Rikers Island (on the other side of the water, that is) is marked for potential flooding. Now, I don’t know much about hurricanes because I’ve lived on the Midwest for nearly my entire life, but this seems like a very, very bad situation for the thousands of people who will be trapped on that island, come hell or high water (in this case, perhaps literally hell or high water).

Regardless what you may think about people who have been incarcerated (including people who have never been convicted of any crime), they are still people. They deserve better than to be abandoned to unknown horrors, as they very well may be. The ACLU did a report on the circumstances at Orleans Parish Prison while the people were left trapped there to face Hurricane Katrina; I have excerpted several sentences from the press release:

As floodwaters rose in the OPP buildings, power was lost, and entire buildings were plunged into darkness.  Deputies left their posts wholesale, leaving behind prisoners in locked cells, some standing in sewage-tainted water up to their chests. . . .

Prisoners went days without food, water and ventilation, and deputies admit that they received no emergency training and were entirely unaware of any evacuation plan.

The press release ended with a quote from Eric Balaban, a staff attorney for the National Prison Project: “These are the untold horrors of Hurricane Katrina. We must preserve these stories to create a record of the tragedy and to ensure that the mistakes detailed in this report are never repeated.”

Clearly, New York City’s Department of Correction has learned nothing.


Update: Critical Resistance has created a campaign to demand an emergency evacuation plan be created for Rikers Island. You can find it here. (5:52 PM, August 28, 2011)

23 responses to “Regardless What Happens With Hurricane Irene, Rikers Island Will Not Be Evacuated


    • I am so sorry to hear that.

      I am also sorry that I contributed to your worries. I’d like to say that it’s possible there will be no need for evacuation. That does not in any way excuse New York City’s Department of Correction, but it still may be that Hurricane Irene will not cause there to be need for Rikers Island to be evacuated.

  2. My bother is in there for they first in his life…his 30…his on there for a phone conversation..thats it…no proof of any souce… Its not like he threaten to kill someone he didnt murder anyone , simply because of a drug package that wasnt in his name wasnt going to address and for sure was on him when they the police came to the house. Does he deserve to die. Not everyone on the island is is guilty you’re innocent till proven guilty. That place is surround by water….this is so not fair mayor bloomberd…every place deserve a evacuation plan !! Dont u have one…u have offices in there dont u care about them ?

  3. This is awful and intolerable.

  4. The assumption that it won’t be evacuated under “any” circumstances is flat-out wrong; there are plenty of residential areas not highlighted as being within Zone A/B, and it’d be ridiculous to assume that if, say, a Cat 3 hurricane came straight toward the city, those non-highlighted areas wouldn’t be urged to leave just because they’re not highlighted.

    The fact of the matter is, based on the type of storm predicted to be in the area, certain areas (including Riker’s Island) are not deemed to need to evacuate, and so they aren’t being evacuated. If the storm was going to be more serious, I doubt the decision would remain the same.

    Also it makes sense that a city that hasn’t seen a direct hit from a hurricane in decades (maybe a century?) wouldn’t have a contingency plan for a more dire hurricane scenario, considering it hasn’t had to deal with such a thing during the modern era. There isn’t really a contingency plan for a full-city evacuation, either.

    • While I admit that I do not know the inner workings of the New York City Department of Corrections, I think that you have missed a few key points (perhaps because I did not make them clear enough).

      First of all, you say that “it’d be ridiculous to assume that . . . those non-highlighted areas wouldn’t be urged to leave just because they’re not highlighted.” For Rikers Island, an urge to leave would do nothing. They are incarcerated; they can do virtually nothing on their own. They must be evacuated in the event of an evacuation.

      Addressing your second paragraph, my outrage is less due to the fact that Rikers Island is not currently being evacuated (because I don’t know whether Hurricane Irene will have a serious affect on Rikers Island) than that it appears Rikers Island would not be evacuated, even in the event of a more serious storm.

      You say you “doubt the decision would remain the same” if the storm were going to be more serious; I disagree. Admittedly, I cannot find information about evacuation on the New York City Department of Correction’s website. However, I found the following statement in The New York Times: “According to the city’s Department of Correction, no hypothetical evacuation plan for the roughly 12,000 inmates that the facility [Rikers Island] may house on a given day even exists.” If that is correct, there is no evacuation plan for Rikers Island, no matter what the situation (Category 3 hurricane headed directly for them, fire, bombs, Godzilla).

      If there isn’t already a hypothetical evacuation plan, it would be incredibly difficult (if not outright impossible) to come up with one on short notice in response to some kind of disaster. There are 12,000-17,000 people, not including correctional officers. There are also people with tuberculosis and other communicable diseases (according to NYC DOC). And, of course, these people are incarcerated, which means that there must be security issues regarding their movements. All of that means that evacuation would take careful planning — it’s not like if my family and I decided to jump in the car and head for someplace safer if we decided we needed to evacuate for some reason.

      That also addresses your comment that “it makes sense that a city that hasn’t seen a direct hit from a hurricane in decades (maybe a century?) wouldn’t have a contingency plan for a more dire hurricane scenario.” It’s not so much the lack of a hurricane evacuation plan that bothers me so much as the lack of any evacuation plan.

      Regarding your last statement that “There isn’t really a contingency plan for a full-city evacuation,” I think it’s a different kind of scenario, getting back to my earlier point that Rikers Island must be evacuated, not merely urged to evacuate. Rikers Island is directly under the control of NYC DOC; the city of New York as a whole is not, not in the same way. NYC DOC controls the movements of anyone at Rikers Island in a way that the movements of the overall population of New York City as a whole are not controlled. NYC DOC is responsible for the people incarcerated at Rikers Island. There are also logistical differences between the practicality of planning to evacuate 12,000 or 17,000 people and planning to evacuate over eight million people.

      If it turned out that NYC DOC has a viable evacuation plan for all of Rikers Island that they would have put into effect if Hurricane Irene were predicted to have a more serious impact on Rikers Island — one that they could and would implement if Hurricane Irene worsens — I would retract the relevant statements from my blog post.

  5. Pingback: Uncaring – US Government will NOT evacuate Rykers Island 17 THOUSAND inmates ? – #irene « Cliffsull's Blog

  6. Pingback: Uncaring – US Government will NOT evacuate Rykers Island 17 THOUSAND inmates ? – #irene « Cliffsull's Blog

  7. They can’t say they didn’t know: “Lessons from Hurricane Katrina: Prison Emergency Preparedness as a Constitutional Imperative.”

  8. Iam sooo worried too. My fiance is also there iam in canada and i hope i hear from him. This is not fair, NYC should have learned something from the past to what had happened to the other jails as when hurricane had happened…. WE ARE PEOPLE AT THE END OF THE DAY…

  9. Ryan, your response is definitely on point! Thank you for writing this.

  10. This is so typical of the state and the inmate…”Governor” Jerry Brown, his first time around, left prisoners to die by drowning in a sunami some years ago and didn’t feel the slightest remorse for it, as far as he was concerned, good riddance. When the Attica riots came down in Rockefellers day he simply had the inmates shot and killed. They had been tortured for fun by the guards and rioted against it and Rockefeller simply shot them.

  11. For Ryan: there is no plan for evacuation of Rikers Island or any other state prison near the coastline of Eastern America. That’s that.

    • From

      New Jersey’s Corrections Department also is preparing for the possibility of having to relocate hundreds of state prison inmates as Hurricane Irene approaches.

      The department issued a statement Thursday saying emergency evacuation plans are being dusted off at all 13 state prisons.

      A primary concern is the Southern State Correctional Facility in Cumberland County where some of the 2,300 prisoners are housed in modular units. Other facilities are in flood-prone areas.

      Similar plans were being made in Delaware.

  12. Having worked at the largest detention facility in the world, at the time 20000 detainees, Camp Bucca Iraq I can tell you that moving detainees/prisoners of that magnitude on any kind of short notice is simply not possible. As stated this process is complicated by those with communicable diseases. Imagine, if you can, what 12000 pairs of hand cuffs and leg irons cost. Sure you could probably get half that and manage but to keep people moving at the pace you would need you’ll need that many pairs. Imagine how much fuel and the number of vehicles required to move that many people would be required. Then do some math and calculations on how many people could be moved at what rate via the access routes available given the vehicles available. And we haven’t accounted for the man power required in terms of law enforcement to make that happen. Then there’s the problem of where do you displace 12000+ people who need to be detained, separated and cared for? Don’t forget that in the days long process both on Rikers Island and at what ever remote location you are moving these people to there needs to be food and water. How many more would be required to do food service alone? I haven’t even touched on the ability to bath, use the facilities, communicate, keep records or manage the whole operation. So yeah, say what you want but we’ve built ourselves a logistically impossible scenario and writing poorly thought out fluff isn’t going to change or fix it. The only fix would be to build more, smaller, detention facilities that are more flexible and can be moved faster. To do that we’d need infinitely more man power. You better file your application with the department of corrections and suit up.

    • Great post, Brock.

      So Wikipedia is wrong to say that Rikers is the world’s largest. Second largest?

      Your post has the ring of truth. There is no way to evacuate. The knowledge that there’s even a moderate chance to hit the city as a category 3 would come way too late in a situation where millions of other New Yorkers were evacuating at the same time.

      Plan? There should be plans. Just not evacuation plans. Maybe it would involve moving some people upstairs. Probably it should be secret so prisoners can’t plot how they would escape under implementation of such a plan.

      Break up Rikers? Move it? These ideas have a boatload of problems, even beyond cost. Does sufficient available high ground in NYC even exist? Are the suburbs willing to take these prisoners at any price?

      If anything is to be done in the way of construction, it has to be on or around the island.

  13. .My FIANCE is there. and it kills me to no that nothing is being done to keep them safe. Im so worried about him. and i pray to god that he makes it…..

  14. Thank you Brock…I understand that people in jail have families and I get what the other people are saying…I see the selfishness in it too. Most people don’t think beyond themselves. What about the Hospitals, Nursing Homes, Orphanages and the other people around the city that can not help themselves? I know who I would help first!

  15. 1 way off the Island n they wont evacuate officers neither so dont think yhey can just walk out the door n get in their cars n drive off the island..

  16. has anyone heard from anyone that they know at Riker’s?? I know a few people there and have not heard a thing! I am wondering if they are safe!

    • I do not know anyone at Rikers, and I do not personally know anything about what is going on there. It is quite possible that you know more than I do (you may, for example, actually be in New York City). However, in case this could be at all helpful to you, I found the following quote from a Huffington Post article: “By the time Irene came ashore in New York on Sunday morning, it had been downgraded from a category 1 hurricane to a tropical storm, and while it lashed the city with high winds and heavy rains, widespread inundation of low-lying coastal areas did not occur.” It continued by saying that fewer than two hours after the worst of the storm was over, there were already people wading into the ocean at Brighton Beach.

      I do not mean to make light of how Irene may have affected people (especially those in upstate New York and Vermont, who I hear are experiencing severe flooding), and again, I do not know how people are doing at Rikers Island. Still, it sounds as though Irene did not hit NYC as hard as people had been expecting.

  17. what about the staff? that just goes to show you what the mayor and the city thinks about correction officer. fuck’em let’em death.

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