No Evacuation for Rikers Island [Updated]

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View of buildings on Rikers Island.Photo: Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images

Look at the city's official hurricane evacuation map and you'll see that pretty much every island and coastal zone is classified as either a Zone A, B, or C. All except one, really. The sort of big one right next to LaGuardia Airport. You know, the one that's covered in prison buildings and houses some 12,000 inmates. Turns out the city's Department of Corrections has literally no evacuation plan for the island, according to the New York Times City Room blog — which is particularly worrisome since Rikers is built on landfill. Granted, Hurricane Irene may do little more than give the city a heavy-handed bath, but the possibility of flooded prison cells remain.

For a little peek at what could happen, though likely on a much lesser scale, Solitary Watch points to the ACLU's post-Katrina report on how Orleans Parish Prison fared during the hurricane.

This 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.

"The sheriff's office was completely unprepared for the storm," said Tom Jawetz, Litigation Fellow for the National Prison Project. "The Louisiana Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals did more for its 263 stray pets than the sheriff did for the more than 6,500 men, women and children left in his care."

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.

Rikers already has a pretty rotten reputation, but letting prisoners wallow in half-flooded cinder-block cell buildings would be taking it to a whole new level.

Update: In an e-mail, Samantha Levine, the mayor's deputy press secretary, wrote:

We carefully reviewed Rikers Island, as we have done with the entire city, and no section [original emphasis] of Rikers Island facilities are in Zone A.

Rikers Island facilies are not in low-lying areas, it's not a coastal location and, like nearby small islands Roosevelt Island and City Island, it does not need to be evacuated. We focused on the areas where real dangers exist.

A full Corrections Department staff will remain on Rikers Island and the facility is a fully self-sustaining entity, prepared to operate and care for inmates in extended emergency conditions."

Locked up and Left Behind: Hurricane Irene and the Prisoners on New York's Rikers Island [Solitary Watch]