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National Prison Strike: State retaliates against South Carolina prisoners in the wake of Hurricane Florence

September 17, 2018

by Amani Sawari

Over the past three weeks, prisoners have been working heavily with strength and bravery to demonstrate to the world through the National Prison Strike that the U.S. criminal justice system is in critical need of some transformative changes. Prisoners have been able to do this on a massive scale through organizing work stoppages, peaceful sit-in protests, boycotts on commissary and phone costs as well as through hunger strikes across 17 states in more than 30 institutions.

Solidarity events were held in at least 21 cities from Washington state to Florida on the kickoff of the National Prison Strike Aug. 21. People who knew little to nothing about prisoners’ rights were now being hit in the face with the inhumane conditions of their reality.

But perhaps no demonstration has been more effective in illustrating the states’ inhumane treatment of prisoners than officials’ decision not to safely relocate incarcerated people trapped in the red zone area of Hurricane Florence’s path after South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster issued an evacuation order to citizens on Sept. 10. The state’s refusal to safely move prisoners out of the hurricane’s path is a blatant disregard to the humanity of those residing there dependent solely on the state’s protection.

While many citizens can choose how to respond to McMaster’s orders to leave the area for safety, prisoners’ only choice is to fill containers with water and wait in terror as a reel of news reports flash across the dayroom television screens convincing free citizens to do what they can to protect their lives.

Freedom to evacuate

While students, professionals, families and other groups of people make the decision as to whether or not to leave the area, prisoners do not have the freedom to make the best choice for their lives. Prisoners do not have the freedom to choose what to eat for dinner, where to work or when they can see their families.

The state’s refusal to safely move prisoners out of the hurricane’s path is a blatant disregard to the humanity of those residing there dependent solely on the state’s protection.

Some people on the outside validate this lack of choices by saying these are the consequences of being convicted of a crime. Whether these “consequences” are just or not, is it also a logical consequence for people to be forced to wait in terror for an oncoming storm after it’s already been charted that it will hit their location and when the hurricane hits prisoners could suffer critically?

South Carolina Department of Corrections spokesman Dexter Lee insisted that inmates at MacDougall were not evacuated during Hurricane Hugo, a Category 4 storm that hit South Carolina in 1989, and the prison “didn’t have any structural damages,” Lee told Vox. “Previously, it’s been safer to stay in place with the inmates rather than move to another location.”

However, last year we saw the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey that left prisons submerged for days following the storm’s hit when over 1 million people had fled the area that prisoners were located in. The aftermath of an event from 30 years ago should not be the only one we look to in predicting the outcome of a present crisis.

This lack of concern for the lives of prisoners is why prisoners stated in their first demand: “Immediate improvements to the conditions of prisons and prison policies that recognize the humanity of imprisoned men and women.”

Flamingos’ Lives Matter

At Riverbanks Zoo in Columbia, S.C., the staff herds flamingos to bring them indoors for protection from the oncoming Hurricane Florence. – Photo: WIS

In an attempt to demonstrate the need to evacuate, the state should make the first move by relocating those in its care out of high risk zones. Prisoners and others in the state’s care should be the first to move before chaos sets. This is the best way to show other residents that the state takes evacuation of the area seriously and wise citizens will follow suit as a result.

This morning I woke up to the news that the state had safely evacuated flamingos from their cages at Riverbanks Zoo. While I’m sure that these birds aren’t regularly transported and it can be dangerous to remove them from their enclosures, staff developed an action plan, herded the animals and took that risk knowing that the risks associated with moving the animals were lower than the tragic loss of life predicted had they not been removed from the storm’s path.

In comparison, Riverbanks Zoo is 85 miles further out from the Red Zone than MacDougall Correctional Institution. While no one is waiting on a call from or worried about their beloved flamingo, prisoners’ families are forced to watch flamingos be safely evacuated from less risky zones than their family members.

The failure to relocate hundreds of prisoners does not recognize the humanity of imprisoned men and women. The lack of effective procedures to ensure the safety of hundreds of prisoners in the path of a storm due to directly hit their location does not recognize the humanity of those trapped there.

The failure to relocate hundreds of prisoners does not recognize the humanity of imprisoned men and women.

This is why prisoners continue to strike in California where a hunger striker in California State Prison in Lancaster has been hunger striking for 23 days and in Ohio’s Toledo Correctional Facility where hunger strikers David Easley and James Ward relaunch their protest.

The strike forces people to ask

The recent three week headlines have left many to wonder about prisoners’ conditions in our country. Had overcrowded conditions not been a normal circumstance for our nation’s prisons, then it would have been more plausible.

Rather than dismissing prisoners’ recent protests, many people have stood in solidarity while others have been forced to ask themselves, are prisoners being treated appropriately? Are their conditions contributing to an improvement in their individual development and rehabilitation?

Rather than dismissing prisoners’ recent protests, many people have stood in solidarity while others have been forced to ask themselves, are prisoners being treated appropriately?

The strike has forced people who wouldn’t normally be concerned with the treatment of prisoners to ask these questions and with the upcoming onset of Hurricane Florence, people are asking about the conditions of prisoners and how they’re being handled in this traumatic situation. Prisoners have been able to make their voices heard, amplify their demands and make their concerns a part of the national conversation.

Prisoners have radically changed the way that people think about prisoners’ rights in making criminal justice reform a national priority.

Numbers to call

If any prisons appear to be in danger from flood waters, here are the people to call to demand that prisoners be evacuated. We should also demand that all prisons stockpile ample food and water.

North Carolina Department of Public Safety (Twitter: @NCPublicSafety)

  • Director of Prisons Kenneth Lassiter: 704-357-6030
  • Department of Correction General Line: 919-838-4000

South Carolina Department of Corrections (Twitter: @SCDCNews)

  • Agency Director Bryan P. Stirling: 803-896-8555

Virginia Department of Corrections (Twitter: @VADOC)

  • General Number: 804-674-3000
  • Only current VA evacuation: Indian Creek Correctional Center.

Federal Bureau of Prisons

  • Mid Atlantic Regional Office (North Carolina and Virginia): 301-317-3100

Amani Sawari, spokesperson for Jailhouse Lawyers Speak, the people who first conceived the strike, is a journalist committed to “writing to enlighten, engage and empower.” She can be reached at amanisawari@gmail.com or @Sawarimi or by mail to 14419 Greenwood Ave. N., Ste A #132, Seattle WA 98133. These contacts can be used to report strike updates. Visit her website, http://sawarimi.org, where this story first appeared.

Postscript: As Hurricane Florence continues to flood and kill, we will be watching how South Carolina especially treats its prisoners. It was to say “Never again!” to the loss of at least seven prisoners’ lives at the grossly overcrowded Lee Correctional Institution in South Carolina in April of this year that the National Prison Strike was called. Is the state’s failure to evacuate the prisoners a retaliatory act? We expect to be hearing from the prisoners themselves in the coming weeks and months.

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