Three Virginia sheriffs are being sued for refusing to take inmates out of Hurricane Florence’s path.
The suit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District off Virginia, accuses of Norfolk Sheriff Joe Baron, Chesapeake Sheriff Jim O’Sullivan and Portsmouth Sheriff Michael Moore of irresponsibly ignoring mandatory evacuation orders. Between the three law enforcement officials, nearly 2,500 inmates were left in the storm’s path.
According to The State¸ Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam ordered all residents of ‘evacuation Zone A’ to leave as soon as possible.
Zone A, writes the Virginia Pilot, encompasses areas with the greatest flood risk.
Each of the sheriffs commanded prisons falling within Zone A. They say the best decision was to wait the hurricane out, instead of attempting a large-scale evacuation of prisoners.
South Carolina's governor announced evacuations by saying they were "not going to gamble with the lives of the people of South Carolina. Not a one."
The people of SC who you're responsible for include those who are incarcerated, Gov. McMaster. You can't leave them in harm's way. https://t.co/DjUGiiFym8
— ACLU (@ACLU) September 12, 2018
“This conduct shocks the conscience; our country’s Constitution simply cannot tolerate this type of discriminatory treatment, where all free citizens evacuate to save their life, but inmates are placed in dire straits at a local jail because they are incarcerated—noting that many inmates are pretrial detainees who have merely been accused of a crime,” claims the suit, which was filed by human rights organization Nexus Derechos Humanos.
Virginia wasn’t the only state coming under fire from human rights watchdogs, either.
The American Civil Liberties Union blasted South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster on Twitter, writing, “The people of SC who you’re responsible for include those who are incarcerated. You can’t leave them in harm’s way.”
Bryan Stirling, head of South Carolina’s Department of Corrections, made a similar decision to that of Virginia’s sheriffs. Citing logistical challenges and the possibility of foul play, Stirling said evacuating prisoners could jeopardize everyone involved.
“We would have a thousand prisoners on buses, on potentially very congested routes,” Stirling said. “It’s not safe for anybody.”
Stirling said that the state would be “playing hopscotch” if it applied evacuation orders to inmates, as Florence’s path could still have changed.
Some inmates interviewed by the New Yorker say they’ve spent past storms hunkered down in locked cells, watching as water rose above their ankles.
“It was actually past your ankles,” the inmate told the New Yorker. “We were yelling for the guards—you know, ‘Hey! Open the doors! They flooding!’”
Correctional officers purportedly ignored the men, not taking action until some prisoners began asking staff to ‘Tell my kids I live them.”
While evacuation orders for Florence have since been lifted, human rights organizations view the state’s refusal to take inmates out of harm’s way as a key Constitutional concern. The New Yorker reported that inmates weren’t even allowed to store bottled water in case of electrical outages or widespread flooding.
“Being caged and unfree, the imprisoned population is literally the most vulnerable to a storm, and, as such, must be the first to be evacuated by a society that has any humanity,” wrote Critical Resistance, a self-described ‘abolitionist’ group. “By not evacuating prisoners to the safety afforded to everyone else, South Carolina is essentially sentencing people behind bars to premature death.”
While Critical Resistance’s rhetoric comes across as unrealistically demanding, the group’s point on prisoner vulnerability was echoed by other advocacy groups. The American Civil Liberties Union implored governors not to gamble with the lives of prisoners, many of whom are incarcerated for petty offenses or have yet to convicted of any crime.