Crime & Courts

As Florence approaches, inmate advocates call for prison evacuation, demand info

Stephanie Serna stood on the east side of the State House on Wednesday with a handful of prison reform advocates. She carried a sign with a loud message in bold black and red lettering.

“We’re not going to gamble with the lives of the people of South Carolina. Not a one.”

“Not a one” is written in red and underlined.

The quote is from Gov. Henry McMaster, and it refers to preparations for the expected landfall of Hurricane Florence.

Serna gathered with others to demand an evacuation of South Carolina prisons in direct danger of Hurricane Florence. The group says government and prison officials refuse to act and that they’re creating a disastrous situation where people’s lives are at risk.

“In perfect conditions we see people dying,” Serna says. “What makes us think that in an emergency situation they’ll do better without any accountability?”

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Right: A map of the evacuation zone in the central coastal part of South Carolina published by the S.C. Emergency Management Division.Left: A Google Map’s image of MacDougall Correctional Institution.

One South Carolina prison remains in the South Carolina Emergency Management Division’s evacuation zones, MacDougall Correctional Institution in Dorchester County. Jasper County, home of Ridgeland Correctional Institution, had been in the evacuation zone, but McMaster canceled the evacuation order for Jasper County on Tuesday.

“It’s safer to stay on campus (at MacDougall) than to leave off,” McMaster said at a news conference on Wednesday.

McMaster spokeperson Bryan Symmes said the head of the state Department of Corrections, Bryan Stirling, continues to monitor the storm, but feels it’s safer for the 650 inmates at MacDougall to remain in place than try to move them. However, that could change based on the track of the storm, Symmes said.

The prisoner advocates take issue with McMaster’s inaction to order an evacuation of vulnerable prisons. On Monday, the governor ordered a mandatory evacuation of Jasper County, where Ridgeland Correctional is located, but prison officials opted out of the evacuation. On Wednesday, McMaster encouraged people to leave all counties such as Jasper, which are in evacuation zones, even if there is no mandatory evacuation in those counties. Prison correctional officers and other essential workers would still have to be scheduled to work, however.

While a mandatory evacuation for Jasper is off, forecasters are saying the latest path of the storm could cause major flooding across the state.

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S.C. Emergency Management Division’s evacuation map.

Serna and other prisoner advocates have called prisons throughout the week in an effort to ask why the prison officials were refusing to evacuate MacDougall despite mandatory orders from the governor. The group wants to know who is responsible for executing an evacuation plan.

“Right now, we’re not in the process of moving inmates,” said Dexter Lee, South Carolina Department of Corrections spokesperson, in an interview with The State on Monday. “In the past, it’s been safer to leave them there. ... There’s a concern anytime (with flooding) in a storm of this magnitude.”

On Wednesday, Lee said the corrections department had moved 266 inmates from a low-security prison in Florence County to another facility in Clarendon County, “a more secure prison.”

“The agency is in constant contact with the South Carolina Emergency Management Division,” Lee said. “The agency will continue to monitor this hurricane to determine if evacuating other prisons is necessary. Due to security reasons we do not announce advanced inmate movements.”

While at the State House, the protesters realized the governor wasn’t in his office. So they set off to the headquarters of the South Carolina Emergency Management Division, where they heard the governor would hold a news conference Wednesday.

To Nathaniel Naomi Simmons-Thorne, a lack of disaster planning exacerbates an already strained, ill-equipped prison system.

“They really don’t have a good place to evacuate them (the inmates),” Simmons-Thorne says. “This is really just entirely a travesty by design.”

Simmons-Thorne connects the lack of emergency planning and a potential crisis back to prisons locking up high numbers of low-level offenders, staffing problems and poor infrastructure.

The protesters worry that South Carolina prisoners and correctional officers might face the same conditions as those experienced after Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana in 2005.

“It got to the point where they didn’t regard any life,” Serna says about the post-Katrina conditions.

McMaster said at a new conference on Wednesday that MacDougall prison “is the safest place for those people (inmates) at this time.”

Kym Smith, a prison reform organizer with the Party for Socialism and Liberation, wants to ask McMaster “why he’s willing to let them drown,” and to tell him, as well as anyone in the state who is willing to listen, that “they’re human beings and not to let them die in a storm.”

Before they could see the governor though, Smith and the other protesters were escorted away.

Emily Bohatch contributed to this story.

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