If a major disaster hits, will people in prison be screwed?

A life-threatening disaster looms ominously over you, your friends, family, and community. As you pack up your essentials, and bug out or head into a shelter, what happens to those who are locked up in your local prisons?

Most prisons roll out disaster management plans, but what happens when they fail? Let's take at the impact of disasters in New Orleans and Haiti, how a breakdown of contingency plans led to tragic outcomes — and what might happen in the most extreme disaster scenarios.


Prison Disaster Plan Failures
In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the Orleans Parish Prison held over 8,000 prisoners, with a large number of the prisoners incarcerated pre-trial, not yet convicted of any crime.

After the evacuation of the city, generators ran and guards stood post in the early days following Hurricane Katrina, but as guards evacuated, the prison population found itself locked in their cells, wading in chest high in sewage contaminated flood water.

In the face of Hurricane Irene, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg refused to evacuate Rikers Island, home to over 12,000 inmates, including juvenile detainees and prisoners with severe mental illnesses. The New York Times later revealed that no evacuation contingency plan exists for Rikers Island.


Prison disaster management plans are now in place in most cases, with of lower threat, nonviolent inmates to assist guard. In the state of California, inmates with a non-violent background and a lack of sexual offenses are often trained to assist in battling fires, both inside of the prison and in communities should a wildfire occur. New Zealand officials are fighting for the right to include inmates as part of a disaster safety initiative as well.

Do shoot on sight orders exist?
In the destruction and chaos following the January 2010 Haitian earthquake, inmates at Les Cayes Prison attempted an escape from a portion of the prison lacking an exit, with guards opening fire and killing 20 unarmed inmates. Two years later, a judge found 27 Haitian guards guilty for their actions in the massacre.


Internet rumors and fiction suggest that guards are given "shoot on sight" orders for prisoners, in the case of an extreme disaster, both to ease the plight of the guards who are soon to abandon the prison, and to prevent any inmates from harming people in local communities. No country publicly acknowledges a "shoot on sight" plan in the case of an extreme disaster — but such a plan could possibly be implemented in the case of martial law.

Moving inmates quickly and safely takes a lot of time
There simply is no quick way to move inmates safely. A recent test of current disaster management policies at New Jersey's Bayside State Prison involving strip searching and loading 30 inmates at into a transfer bus took over an hour. From this test, the officers at Bayside would need six hours and a full staff to load its 223 prisoners safely for transfers along with their records. If a disaster is imminent or ongoing, safe moving according to disaster protocols will be difficult (and likely not happen), even with a full guard staff.


Releasing inmates
In the western world, prison populations are enormous. The United States holds 0.7% of its population in prisons — a little more than two million people.


If a society shattering disaster occurred, either natural or man-made, would the prisoners ever be voluntarily released? And if prisoners are released, do the powers that be release lower level prisoners first, then move down the line? Do you release inmates with a history with violent crimes, or those who are sentenced to die?

No official statements from U.S. officials exist concerning a policy leading to the release of inmates in the wake of a large scale crisis. A historical precedent exists for not releasing prisoners, even in the face of impending death. In 1931, officials at the Ohio State Penitentiary refused to release or move inmates during a prison fire, leading to the deaths of over 300 inmates.


In light of the shooting of unarmed prisoners in Haiti and the abandonment of prisoners at the Orleans Parish Prison, existing plans to care for inmates often fail in practice. One positive fictional scenario is presented in the pages of The Walking Dead. Prisoners build a self sustaining society within the walls of their prison — which might actually be an unrealistically sunny outcome. The prison environment would need to be a positive one with inmate leadership, and an existing long-term cache of food and supplies.

So let's hope that prisons beef up their contingency plans for extreme disasters. Leaving prisoners to die is not a scenario I am comfortable allowing, regardless of their crimes. Besides, if you were a released prisoner in the middle of a devastating crisis, would you be wreaking havoc, as society fears, or looking for food and safety?


Top image by sedatsuna on DeviantArt. Additional images courtesy of the U.S. Geological Survey and Image Comics. Sources linked within the article.

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