South Carolina’s inmates are stuck in Hurricane Florence’s path. Here’s what happened to abandoned prisoners before

Florence will reach South Carolina soon.
Florence will reach South Carolina soon.
Image: REUTERS/National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Handout
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Hurricane Florence has already claimed five lives as of Friday evening. While it’s been downgraded to a tropical storm, the threat from what North Carolina governor Roy Cooper called a “powerful, slow, and relentless” weather event remains very real. And sitting squarely in Florence’s path is MacDougall Correctional, which has not been evacuated despite being in the path of the hurricane—and 650 inmates who can do nothing but wait for the storm to hit.

A spokesperson for the South Carolina Department of Corrections defended the decision to leave the inmates in place, saying that it’s safer to leave prisoners where they are. Bryan Stirling, the director of the South Carolina department, told the New Yorker that they are not moving MacDougall residents because prison evacuations posed “logistical challenges and public-safety concerns.” But North Carolina and Virginia have already evacuated prisoners in high-risk zones.

Stirling’s decision comes in the wake of a nationwide prison strike catalyzed by a deadly riot and inhumane conditions in South Carolina’s prisons. In light of South Carolina’s choice to leave MacDougall as it is, an inmate told the New Yorker that his fellow prisoners would be left to drown “if it rained enough.”

As of late Friday (Sept. 14) afternoon, Dorchester County, where MacDougall is located, is already experiencing tropical storm force winds and the risk of flash floods, according to the National Weather Service. It is not clear what will happen to MacDougall inmates as Hurricane Florence rages on, but prisoners have been abandoned during major hurricanes before. This is what happened when they were left behind.

  • Hurricane Maria: Puerto Rico’s prisons are located near flood zones, and the Marshall Project reported that abandoned prisons were left without electricity, and up to their knees in contaminated water and human waste. 13 prisoners escaped in the aftermath of the storm. Quartz recently conducted an extensive investigation into Hurricane Maria, and those who died because of it.
  • Hurricane Irma: When 4,500 people were abandoned in a correctional facility in Miami-Dade County, Florida, guards said that lives were unnecessarily put at risk. The Miami Times reported that when Irma made landfall in September 2017, trapped guards said that prisoner’s cells were covered in urine, feces, and mold, while there was no power and little food.
  • Hurricane Harvey: In August 2017, 3,000 men were stuck inside Stiles Unit, a Texas state prison, in unbearable conditions. These included insufficient food, little clean drinking water, and overflowing toilets, according to Mother Jones. This was reminiscent of Hurricane Ike in 2008, when Texas inmates were also left to endure unsanitary conditions. 
  • Hurricane Katrina: Human Rights Watch claimed that 517 inmates went missing from New Orleans Parish Prison during Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and inmates remembered seeing dead bodies, the BBC reports. There are thousands of eyewitness accounts that claim prisoners in New Orleans, including more than 100 teenage inmates, were almost fully submerged in dirty flood water, and were left without food or water for days.