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.