South Carolina officials have repeatedly urged coastal residents to flee Hurricane Florence, warning of danger and even death. But they have rejected calls to move the inmates of a state prison in a mandatory evacuation zone.
In the path of the storm is the MacDougall Correctional Institution, a medium-security prison about 35 miles northwest of Charleston that houses 651 inmates. The area is under an evacuation order issued by Gov. Henry McMaster.
Spokesmen for the South Carolina prison system and governor’s office did not return phone calls or emails on Thursday, but an official who answered the phone at MacDougall prison said it would not be evacuated.
At a news conference Wednesday, Governor McMaster said it would be better not to move the inmates.
“The analysis so far is that it’s toward the edge of one of the evacuation zones, and because of its placement and because of the types of buildings and a lot of other considerations, it’s safer to stay on campus than it is to try to get off,” he said. “That is the safest place for those people to be at this time.”
Nor will inmates be moved from the Lieber Correctional Institution, a high-security prison that houses 1,165 inmates less than 10 miles from MacDougall. It is outside the mandatory evacuation zone.
“I think that facility is pretty solid,” said Jerry B. Adger, the director of the state’s probation and parole department.
Prisoner-rights activists have been demonstrating outside state offices in Columbia, demanding that inmates be moved and citing the governor’s promise not to “gamble with the lives of the people of South Carolina.”
“Stay true to your word McMaster,” read one protester’s sign.
Evacuating prisons is costly and logistically challenging, but North Carolina and Virginia, which are also expected to be hit by Florence, began moving prisoners inland days ago.
Experts say there is real risk in keeping prisoners in place, even if officials believe they have planned for all contingencies.
Thousands of prisoners in New Orleans had to endure standing in filthy floodwaters for days, with no food, drinking water or electricity, after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
And after Hurricane Harvey struck Texas last year, inmates at a federal prison said they were left for weeks without access to functioning toilets and showers or adequate food and water, according to the National Lawyers Guild.
“If South Carolina has not put everything in place to ensure the safety and security of those men, and of the men and women who work in that facility, then they should evacuate,” said Eric Balaban, senior staff counsel of the A.C.L.U.’s National Prison Project.
“Time and again there have been prison officials who believed that they had the manpower, infrastructure and everything else they needed to shelter in place, and then they were proven wrong, and they had to scramble to evacuate those facilities as they plunged into chaos,” Mr. Balaban said.
The Virginia Department of Corrections transferred almost 1,000 prisoners on Monday night from a facility in Chesapeake, Va., to a prison south of Richmond.
And on Thursday North Carolina prison officials were using buses to evacuate inmates from the last of a handful of prisons believed to be in the path of the storm. Jerry Higgins, a state prison spokesman, declined to specify the number of prisoners who had been moved, citing security concerns.