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Hurricane Irene: Why failing to evacuate inmates violates human rights standards

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prisonbars-749138.jpgAs Hurricane Irene makes its way up the Atlantic seaboard, officials in New York are coming under growing fire for failing to authorize an evacuation of Rikers Island, the city's main jail complex housing about 12,000 inmates.

Unlike North Carolina, which evacuated over 1,300 inmates before Irene struck, Mayor Mike Bloomberg has resisted calls to safely remove inmates from the facility; indeed, news reports say that it doesn't even have an evacuation plan.

The disparate approaches to ensuring the safety of inmates points to larger shortcomings in U.S. and state disaster policy, which has yet to fall in line with international human rights standards. In 1998, the United Nations issued the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, which looks at how governments can protect rights before, during and after major disasters.

As the Institute for Southern Studies documented in an in-depth 2008 report on the Guiding Principles and Hurricane Katrina, the U.S. hasn't formally ratified the standards, but has repeatedly embraced them: In 2004, the U.S. State Department called for "wider recognition of the U.N. guiding principles" as a "useful framework" for disaster policy.

What do the Guiding Principles say about treatment of inmates during a disaster? In Principle Four, the U.N. clearly prohibits discrimination on the basis of "legal status" during disaster response. In other words, if it's decided that evacuation is the best way to protect residents, that has to be applied to all people.

Further, Principle 11 prohibits "cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment" of all people affected by a disaster.

These issues were brought into sharp focus in the wake of treatment of inmates at Orleans Parish Prison during and after Katrina. Here's an excerpt from our 2008 report on Katrina and human rights:

During the storm and for several days afterwards, several thousand men, women, and children as young as ten--many of them being held in pre-trial detention on minor offenses-- were effectively abandoned as floodwaters rose and the power went out, plunging the cells into darkness. As deputies fled their posts, prisoners were left standing up to their chests in sewage-contaminated floodwaters, without food, drinking water, or ventilation.

Once they were evacuated from OPP, prisoners were sent to receiving facilities around the state where human rights abuses appear to have continued. At one facility, for example, thousands of OPP evacuees spent several days on an outdoor football field where there were no toilets or wash facilities, and where prisoner-on-prisoner violence went unchecked by guards. A recent ACLU report examining changes made at the prison since the disaster concluded that "OPP remains dangerously ill prepared to handle a future emergency," with a revised evacuation plan that is "inconsistent" and "inadequate" to prevent the kinds of abuses that occurred after Katrina.

Despite widespread outcry, some officials didn't seem to learn from the Katrina experience. When Hurricane Ike struck the Gulf further west in 2008, the city and county of Galveston, Texas declared a mandatory evacuation -- but not for the 1,000 inmates and staff of the county jail, despite warnings from the National Weather Service that those who stayed faced "certain death." Fortunately, the storm surge ended up being less than feared.

That may turn out to be the case with Rikers Island. But the controversy -- and the reality of unequal and disparate treatment -- underscore the need for the U.S. to get serious about protecting human rights in the face of disasters.

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re: Hurricane Irene: Why failing to evacuate inmates violates hu

every news channel where i seen the mayor bein asked the question of why not rikers island, thats when they all cut the segment and went to the next story. pathetic none the big media will even mention/acknowledge any this . or am i missing it somewhere?

re: Hurricane Irene: Why failing to evacuate inmates violates hu

It's not in the Cat 1 flood zone area of the map at all. That's why.

re: Hurricane Irene: Why failing to evacuate inmates violates hu

Yeah the world would be such a horrible place with 12000 less convicts in the world Hmm 12000 less rapists, Killers, burglars, arsonists,pedaphiles and gangbangers. Exactly where am I supposed to lose sleep here?

re: Hurricane Irene: Why failing to evacuate inmates violates hu

This system is totally inhumane to humanity. All I heard the mayor say about the inmates was that they have not been evacated and they are not in danger. Total disregard to human beings. This is the system and how they treat their citizens no matter what their political status.

re: Hurricane Irene: Why failing to evacuate inmates violates hu

Since tomorrow is the 6th Anniversary of Katrina it's important that some myths be laid to rest. Here are some facts:
While Hurricane Katrina was a natural disaster for the Mississippi Gulf Coast, it was not a natural disaster for the city of New Orleans. The Army Corps of Engineers' shoddy levees failed to hold up to a Category 3 storm. Most of the death and destruction in New Orleans was caused by the levee failures as well as the slow response by the Federal Government.
While we in the Superdome believed the rumors of murders and rapes, in reality these could not be verified. There was a suicide, a couple of drug overdoses and about 5 deaths of medical patients.
The Airport, Amtrak, and Greyhound shut down PRIOR to the evacuation of New Orleans. Many of us could not get out of town and ended up at the Superdome or Convention Center.
The approximate 85% of residents who did evacuate is a higher level than most evacuations of its kind in the U.S.
Those infamous flooded busses would have only evacuated about 5000 people as only half were operable and who was going to drive them as most of the locals had been forced to evacuate.
Days after Katrina, Bush said "no one could have foreseen the breach of the levees". 6 months later a video and transcripts surfaced showing Bush being forewarned by the Head of the Nat. Hurricane Center, Gov. Blanco, "Brownie" and Nagin that this was going to be a devastating storm and quite likely the levees would be breached. Bush said "everything would be taken care of". Thus he was caught in two lies.
Paul Harris
Author, "Diary From the Dome, Reflections on Fear and Privilege During Katrina"

re: Hurricane Irene: Why failing to evacuate inmates violates hu

The Bloomberg Administration's failure to include Rikers Island correctional facility in any of the city's evacuation maps shows a deep disregard for basic human rights. Let's not forget that the island is home to many non-convicts awaiting trial, as well as women, children, the elderly and mentally handicapped. James Ridgeway was discussing this very topic on Democracy Now!...here is the link: Whether or not the storm has been hyped, the fact that the Rikers Island prison population (which includes non-convicts, women, children and the mentally ill) had no status under the city's evacuation plans is a disgrace for the Bloomberg administration. James Ridgeway was discussing this on Democracy Now!, here's the link: http://www.democracynow.org/2011/8/29/nyc_criticized_for_failing_to_evacuate

re: Hurricane Irene: Why failing to evacuate inmates violates hu

How Much Would it Cost to evacuate all those Prisoners ? and How many would escape ? Maybe they could've Grabbed the Non-violent ones ~ and still that would Cost so much ! And with Our Government in Debt ~ Aren't they at least Part of the reason that our Country is in Debt ? so If they stayed and some Drowned ! That would save some Money ! How much does it Costs to keep the Death Row Inmates alive & well a year ? So Quit whining about trying to save those Losers ~ Besides what about the People who really need the Help ! There would be too many officers keeping those inmates guarded then helping people who really desire help

re: Hurricane Irene: Why failing to evacuate inmates violates hu

Whateveryone doesn't mention are: how about the correctional staff?

re: Hurricane Irene: Why failing to evacuate inmates violates hu

Nunya & Mr. Fowler and others of their heartless un-American ilk need to remember that Rikers Island is also a JAIL that holds people awaiting trial who have not been convicted of any crime and may very well be innocent. Why don't y'all go live in China? Your way of thinking fits in better in a place like that.

re: Hurricane Irene: Why failing to evacuate inmates violates hu

Although I am not an advocate of excessive prisoner rights, the fact that the inmates were not moved is shameful. Only by an act of God did they not get flooded. I live in NC, within 1 1/2 hours from our coast and areas of our town have been flooded due to numerous hurricanes. Hurricanes cannot be trusted to do what you want them to do and can surprise you either by flooding or not flooding. You just don't take the chance. I can only assume the mayor had no idea the dangers involved in a hurricane. As to the treatment of inmates in Louisiana after Katrina, yes they should have been removed. Once removed where were they to be placed. Our prisons are already full. I am sure they would have enjoyed living with you and your staff.

re: Hurricane Irene: Why failing to evacuate inmates violates hu

Kudos Chris.