South Carolina

SC officials won’t evacuate medium-security prison despite mandatory order

As nearly a million people hit the road before Hurricane Florence nears the coast, 934 inmates and as many as 119 prison staff were ordered to stay behind despite a mandatory evacuation.

Despite an evacuation order encompassing the prison’s location in Jasper County issued Monday, S.C. Department of Corrections officials decided not to remove inmates at the Ridgeland Correctional Institution as of that afternoon, SCDC spokesman Dexter Lee said in an interview with The State.

“Right now, we’re not in the process of moving inmates,” Lee said. “In the past, it’s been safer to leave them there.”

During a press conference Monday afternoon, S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster revealed maps of the evacuation zones. McMaster commented that the darker the color, the more important it was for residents to evacuate.

Ridgeland falls within a red area on the evacuation map.

“We know the evacuation order I’m issuing will be inconvenient,” McMaster said during the evacuation press conference. “But we’re not going to gamble with the lives of the people of South Carolina. Not a one.”

During a Tuesday press conference, McMaster lifted the evacuation order for Jasper County.

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

Along with the nearly 1,000 prisoners ordered to stay behind during the evacuation, essential personnel would have been required to stay behind and work at the prison, Lee said. Guards would not have the choice to opt in or out if they are scheduled to work during Hurricane Florence, he added.

Though parts of the lower Low Country aren’t included in the National Hurricane Center’s hurricane warning zone, Lee said there is some concern about conditions Florence may cause.

“There’s a concern anytime (with flooding) in a storm of this magnitude,” Lee said.

In 2016, during Hurricane Matthew, an inmate died at Ridgeland Correctional Institution, according to a previous report in The State. Then Gov. Nikki Haley said the death was seemingly unrelated, according to the report.

Haley added there were no deaths directly related to the storm.

MacDougall Correctional Institution in Dorchester County is also in the evacuation zone, Lee said.

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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.

During a press conference Wednesday, McMaster confirmed that officials would not be moving inmates at MacDougall to a facility outside of the evacuation zone. Lee said 651 inmates are housed at the facility.

Lee did say that generally, SCDC believes it’s safer to not transfer inmates to another location.

MacDougall is a Level 2 institution in Ridgeville, which houses medium-security inmates. Ridgeland Correctional is also a Level 2 institution, located in Ridgeland.

McMaster mentioned Wednesday during a press conference that prisoners at Lieber Correctional Institution in Ridgeville would also remain in their home facility. It is unclear how many prisoners are housed at Lieber, but the facility is a Level 3 prison, holding maximum-security inmates.

Lieber is located near MacDougall, but it is not in the evacuation zone.

Wednesday, the Department of Corrections announced it was moving 266 inmates housed at Palmer Pre-Release Center in Florence, which is not in an evacuation zone.

Palmer is a minimum security prison, according to the SCDC website. It is ranked a level 1-A, which houses non-violent inmates within 36 months of release.

Inmates at Palmer were taken to Turbeville Correctional Institution, a medium security prison in Turbeville, closer to the Midlands.

“The agency will continue to monitor this hurricane to determine if evacuating other prisons is necessary,” Lee said in a statement.

During Wednesday’s press conference, McMaster was asked about protesters who gathered outside to demand prisoners be moved to another location. Protesters were using McMaster’s own words from Monday on not a single South Carolinian being left behind as a rallying cry.

“That is the safest place for those people to be at this time,” McMaster said Wednesday.

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Thursday, the ACLU of South Carolina issued a statement about McMaster’s decision.

“This storm is slated to be one of the worst we have ever seen, and if Gov. McMaster truly does not want to ‘gamble with the lives of the people of South Carolina,’ he needs to make sure that the prison system is up to par, or evacuate the inmates just as he has ordered the rest of us to do,” the statement read.

The statement pointed to other disasters in which prisoners were put in harms way during hurricanes.

During Hurricane Katrina, officials at the Orleans Parish Prison, the city jail for New Orleans, decided not to evacuate their residents, according to a report from the ACLU. Inmates who had yet to be convicted of the crimes they were accused of were left in a flooding facility without power, food or water for days.

“Inmates have been adjudicated in a court of law and their sentence has been set — nowhere in the Constitution is ‘death by natural disaster’ an acceptable punishment,” the statement read.

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