by Warren Popp
Impunity Watch Editor-in-Chief
NEW YORK, NY – According to several news outlets, the New York City Department of Corrections does not have an evacuation plan for the approximately 12,000 prisoners held at Rikers Island, and Mayor Michael Bloomberg clearly stated at a news conference on Friday that “We are not evacuating Rikers Island.”
These revelations have revived stories of prisoners that were not evacuated when hurricane Katrina struck Louisiana in 2005. Solitary Watch quoted the following excerpt from an American Civil Liberties Union Report:
[A] culture of neglect was evident in the days before Katrina, when the sheriff declared that the prisoners would remain “where they belong,” despite the mayor’s decision to declare the city’s first-ever mandatory evacuation. OPP even accepted prisoners, including juveniles as young as 10, from other facilities to ride out the storm.
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. Even some prison guards were left locked in at their posts to fend for themselves, unable to provide assistance to prisoners in need.
Further heightening the level of concern and indignation amongst critics, the prisoners housed at Rikers Island include juveniles, a large number of mentally ill persons, and even pre-trial detainees, with the latter group not convicted of any crimes. Also adding to the concerns is that more that three-fourths of the island is built on a landfill, which is believed to be more vulnerable to natural disasters.
The Office of the Mayor has responded to criticisms by asserting that the prisoners safety is not being compromised, and that no part of Rikers Island is in Zone A (the mandatory evacuation area). The Wall Street Journal quotes the Mayor’s spokesman as saying, “[w]e are focused on the areas where real dangers exist.” However, Rikers Island is reportedly one of the only islands in the area that is not listed in any of the areas zoned for evacuation.
The Office of the Mayor reasoned that the prisoners do not need to be evacuated because the island, like other islands in New York City, does not actually touch the Atlantic Ocean. The Mayor’s spokesperson was also quoted as saying that the jail is able to sustain itself and is “prepared to operate and care for inmates in extended emergency conditions,” with a full staff to remain on the island.
These words of reassurance have done little to satisfy those concerned about the plight of the Rikers Island prisoners. The Executive Director of the Center for Constitutional Rights said that “[i]t is appalling that the City administration is abandoning the men and women at Rikers even after the lessons of hurricane Katrina.” He called on the Mayor to “take appropriate action immediately to protect the life and safety of everyone confined at Rikers Island and all vulnerable corrections facilities in New York City. Their lives should not be treated as less valuable than those of other New Yorkers.”
For more information, please see:
Center for Constitutional Rights – CCR Says NYC Must Act Immediately to Protect Prisoners at Rikers Island from Hurricane Irene – 27 August 2011
Mother Jones – Rikers Island Prisoners Left Behind to Face Irene – 27 August 2011
New York Magazine – No Evacuation for Rikers Island [Updated] – 27 August 2011
Wall Street Journal – No Evacuation Planned at Rikers Island – 27 August 2011
Solitary Watch – Locked Up and Left Behind: Hurricane Irene and the Prisoners on New York’s Rikers Island – 26 August 2011