I am a formerly incarcerated Jewish lesbian. When I was 60, I was convicted of tax evasion and sent to the federal women’s prison at Alderson in West Virginia. I spent two years behind bars, some of that time in solitary. I lost my freedom in prison; I didn’t expect to lose my right to be safe.
Summers at Alderson were hot as hell. Two of the four sleeping units had no air conditioning. The 90-plus degree temperature outside felt like 100 degrees inside. I was unlucky to live in one of the units without air conditioning. It was stifling and I had trouble breathing.
As a formerly incarcerated person, I worry a great deal about the safety of people in prisons, jails and detention centers, specifically about what happens to them during weather-related events. For example: Hurricane Katrina. It struck New Orleans in 2005. The mayor of the city declared the first-ever mandatory evacuation of the city. But that evacuation to safety did not apply to people in prisons. They were left locked in cells filled with sewage-tainted water.
Then there was Hurricane Irene. It struck New York in 2011. Mayor Bloomberg ordered the evacuation of 400,000 residents and their pets to safety in 72 shelters. He did not order the evacuation of Rikers Jail complex, which housed 12,000 incarcerated people.
Hurricane Harvey struck Texas in late summer of 2017. When the storm was bearing down on the state, incarcerated people were made to fill sandbags to brace for the impact of the storm. Three days later, only 6,000 of the 147,000 incarcerated people were evacuated. One incarcerated man’s mother reported to the local newspaper that her son’s first floor cell was knee high in water. Texas prison spokesman, Jason Clark, denied there was a problem.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott told Floridians to “evacuate or die.” He moved 7,000 incarcerated people leaving 90,000 behind. To make matters worse, a Polk County Sheriff tweeted, “anyone seeking shelter who had an outstanding warrant or was a convicted sex offender would be sent to prison rather than a shelter.”
We all heard lots of stories about the mishandling of the recovery from Hurricane Maria after it struck Puerto Rico. But, to this day, we do not know if electricity, water, and food are available at the 13 prisons on the island. Or for that matter, if anyone died in those prisons.
Like Hurricanes, tornados can be dangerous for incarcerated people. An EF-2 tornado struck Aliceville Prison in Alabama in 2016, causing considerable damage to the facility. The roof of one of the sleeping units blew off the building. Officials reported only slight damage to the administration building. Prison officials often provide false or no information about the impact of extreme weather incidents on prison facilities and those who live in them.
Our prisons, jails and detention centers are not prepared for extreme weather. Is this because incarcerated people are disproportionately black, brown, and LGBTQ? Perhaps this explains the lack of safety and under-reporting of weather-related dangers. Or are incarcerated people not considered human beings?
I believe the only way to make this population safe is to force prisons to provide emergency policies requiring evacuation during hurricanes, tornados, floods, fires and mudslides. Similarly, all institutions must properly ventilate sleeping units and dining halls so they are adequately cool in summer and warm in winter.
We know that prisons are highly profitable institutions and making incarcerated people safe is prohibitively expensive. Perhaps the way to keep incarcerated people safe is to release them.
Evie Litwok is director of Witness to Mass Incarceration.