Partner, Jenipher Jones, Quoted in 'USA Today' Article Regarding the Treatment of Prisoners
By N'dea Yancey-Bragg
The day before Hurricane Ian slammed into Florida, attorney Rene Suarez was preparing to help his client get out of jail in downtown Fort Myers. He had secured an offer for probation so that his client would be released after a hearing. But when Ian struck, the courts closed, leaving her and many others who haven't been convicted of a crime stuck in a facility in a mandatory evacuation zone. Although Lee County officials issued an evacuation order Sept. 27, the sheriff's office decided not to evacuate its two jails before the storm made landfall the next day.
It wasn't until a week after the storm that Suarez, whose office near the jail flooded and lost internet access, was able to speak to his client, who described poor sanitary conditions in the downtown jail and a rationing of water that was so severe she had gotten a urinary tract infection. But until the courts reopened, Suarez couldn't get her out of jail. "There should be some kind of a mechanism to get people in front of judges that have offers on the table that would get them out of jail, but they don't. And it's not just her," Suarez said. His client asked to remain unnamed for fear of retaliation; USA TODAY confirmed her identity through jail records.
Another local criminal defense attorney, Danielle O’Halloran, told USA TODAY their clients also said that officials were rationing water and that the jail may have experienced flooding.
While multiple spokespeople for the jail denied those claims to USA TODAY, advocates say there has long been the need for better emergency planning for jails and prisons ahead of disasters.
"We need to proactively change these systems. It's literally a matter of life and death," said Jenipher Jones, co-chair of the National Lawyers Guild's Mass Incarceration Committee.
While states or counties may have standard practices, there is no national mandate to develop emergency plans, which leaves decisions about preparation and evacuation to corrections departments, sheriff's offices and other local officials.
During Hurricane Irene in 2011, for example, inmates were not evacuated at New York's Rikers Island, Mother Jones reported. Nor were they evacuated from a South Carolina state prison or three city jails in Virginia during Hurricane Florence in 2018, according to the outlet.
What are prisons and jails required to do?
As high winds and rising waters knock out electricity and running water, people in jails and prisons can be left without clean drinking water, food, medication, functioning toilets and air conditioning for days after a storm, said Alex Smith, a volunteer with Fight Toxic Prisons, an organization that campaigned for evacuations, stockpiling and mass releases ahead of Hurricane Ian.
"All of these things can increase the spread of disease and can increase people succumbing to preexisting conditions," he said. "There are also many elderly people who are incarcerated. It's often disabled people, often poor people, often people of color who are incarcerated in the first place. All of those groups are more likely to see increased health risks, due to lack of medical care."
Before Ian struck, about 2,500 inmates were evacuated from more than 20 facilities in Florida to other locations that were "better equipped to weather the impacts of the storm," the Florida Department of Corrections, which operates state prisons, said Sept. 28.
In Charlotte County north of Fort Myers, the jail saw some damage and flooding from Ian. Though it wasn't in an evacuation zone, the jail had problems with electricity, water and fan units that were ripped from the roof, officials said.
In Lee County, the Fort Myers jail was in the mandatory evacuation zone, but officials did not evacuate.
The Supreme Court ruled that under the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution, prisons cannot be deliberately indifferent to the safety and well-being of the people in their care, Jones said. The National Institute of Corrections, part of the Department of Justice, offers state and local correctional agencies a guide to emergency planning, which includes a checklist for assessing a prison's readiness to deal with natural disasters.
But because there is no federal requirement, there are few legal standards to hold those running prisons and jails responsible when things go wrong, said Wanda Bertram, communications strategist at the Prison Policy Initiative.
"Typically, that stuff has to happen via the court," Bertram said. "And, sadly, one of the trends over the last 20 years is that there's been a clamp down on states and the federal government allowing incarcerated people to sue based on neglectful treatment."
'Conflicting stories' after Hurricane Ian
According to Lee County's 2018 emergency management plan, if there is a 10% chance of a 6-foot storm surge, the areas in "Zone A" – which included the jail – should be evacuated. On Sept. 27, the storm surge for Lee County was predicted to be between 5 and 10 feet, according to the National Hurricane Center.
Inmates at the main jail were relocated to higher floors in preparation for the storm surge, said Julie Martin, a spokesperson for Lee County Sheriff's Office, which runs the jail.
"The conflicting stories I've been getting from clients that are currently in custody is that they don't have water in the jail meaning they have toilets that flush, they don't have drinkable water," O’Halloran said last week. "Some of them even claimed that the first floor of the jail took on water."
When asked why the jail didn't evacuate, as advised in the county's plan, Anita Iriarte, another sheriff's office spokesperson, declined to comment specifically. Iriarte, however, disputed the attorneys' claims and told USA TODAY that inmates were offered "an acceptable amount of water." While water pressure at the jail "became critically low," inmates were given water containers to flush toilets and some were later relocated to an inland facility after the storm, she said. The downtown Fort Myers jail was not flooded or damaged, and there were no injuries, Martin said.
Disaster plans must be 'thoughtful and realistic'
When Hurricane Katrina battered New Orleans in 2005, a lack of planning led to thousands of inmates being trapped for days without food, water and ventilation, some locked in cells with chest-high water contaminated with sewage in the Orleans Parish Prison, according to reports from the American Civil Liberties Union and Human Rights Watch.
During Hurricane Harvey in 2017, more than 8,000 people were left behind in four Texas prisons, according to an estimate from The Nation.
The National Lawyers Guild collected reports of "unconstitutional conditions" from prisoners in Texas who described flooding, toilets not functioning, and inadequate food and water. The group outlined them in a letter to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, which denied such claims in interviews with multiple media outlets.
"We had several people who were saying that they had water in their cell up to their knees," said Azzurra Crispino, co-founder of Prison Abolition Prisoner Support, which helped the National Lawyers Guild collect the reports. "And then even after the water receded, there were folks that were saying that the mold had gotten to the point where there were entire walls that were just covered in black."
Part of the problem with regulating disaster preparedness is that the prison system is not centralized, said Corene Kendrick, deputy director of the ACLU's National Prison Project. Federal and state governments could step in by tying funding to emergency response plans that include evacuation protocols, Kendrick said. Kendrick said it's crucial that the plans are "thoughtful and realistic" and take into account the needs of the most vulnerable populations, including those who are older, have disabilities, or preexisting health conditions.
THERE ARE 'NO EASY FIXES' IN FLORIDA: But could Hurricane Ian's havoc bring a call for better planning?
"Research has shown that most prisons don't really have well-thought-out evacuation plans," she said. "Evacuation planning is a very complicated process and really needs to involve people who have expertise in dealing with natural hazards and emergency planning, and it can't just be something that like a prison or a jail just throws together at the last minute."
Kendrick also suggested including a provision in local plans to allow jails to release people who are awaiting trial until the disaster passes. Longer term, as climate change brings worse natural disasters, officials need to rethink where jails and prisons are located, Kendrick said, noting that prisons have been built near hazardous waste sites and areas at high risk for flooding.
"Those actions also kind of set these facilities up for even more problems when there's a natural disaster," she said. Jones, of the National Lawyers Guild's Mass Incarceration Committee, suggested the United States adhere to international human rights standards concerning the treatment of imprisoned people, known as the Mandela rules that "would immediately elevate the standards and the conditions of prisons." "Ultimately," she said, "a reexamination of how we incarcerate and whether we incarcerate at all is a core solution."