Each fall, dangerous weather conditions brought by hurricane season threaten communities in the southeastern part of the United States. Many of the citizens in these communities are able to take the safety precautions necessary to prevent the storm from bringing devastation to their lives. But there is one population whose ability to take shelter during the storm is entirely out of their own hands: the incarcerated. Prison populations are directly under the control of the state, and it is the state’s duty to ensure that they are safe during dangerous weather conditions. The state’s failure to do so raises concerns about the infliction of cruel and unusual punishment and the violation of the prisoners’ human rights.
Poor treatment of prisoners during hurricanes is a recurring problem. During Hurricane Katrina, Louisiana prisoners were not permitted to evacuate state prisons in anticipation of the storm and were later forced to remain in their cells amid dangerous flooding when prison guards abandoned them to evacuate. Last year during Hurricane Harvey, the Texas government refused to allow for the evacuation of prisoners despite the treacherous storm. In September of this year, Hurricane Florence threatened coastal communities throughout the Carolinas. South Carolina in particular was faced with heavy rains, winds, and dangerous storm surges. Despite South Carolina Governor Henry McMaster’s order for mandatory evacuations along the coast of the state, accompanied by his claim that that he did not want to “risk one South Carolina life in this hurricane,” state officials chose not to evacuate prisons across the state even if the prisoners were incarcerated in mandatory evacuation zones. As a result, prisoners were forced to sustain the dangerous storm conditions while locked inside a confined space with virtually no opportunity to flee to safety. The decision of the South Carolina government raises questions about the treatment of South Carolina prisoners in general, the value that the South Carolina government places on the lives of their prisoners, and the potential human rights violations created by forcing them to sustain potentially life-threatening weather conditions while locked inside cells.
South Carolina’s potential human rights violations are evident in light of both national and international human rights guidelines. The treatment of prisoners in the United States is subject to scrutiny under the Eighth Amendment of the United States Constitution. The fact that prisoners continue to be protected by the Constitution from cruel and unusual punishment indicates that even though they have been deprived of a significant degree of freedom, they are still afforded liberties by the Constitution, and the state is not permitted to ignore their rights upon their sentencing to prison. Furthermore, in the international setting, Article 10 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) provides that “All persons deprived of their liberty shall be treated with humanity and with respect for the inherent dignity of the human person.” South Carolina’s decision to issue a mandatory evacuation indicates that the safety and well-being of many citizens was a central concern to the state. The refusal to allow prisoners to join the evacuees makes clear both that South Carolina is not concerned with the safety and well-being of their prisoners and that they have not shown respect to the Constitution’s protection of this population. When considered within the context of these legal and ethical standards that governments are called to abide by as they control prison populations, South Carolina’s behavior in this situation indicates a potential constitutional violation and a clear human rights violation. Forcing prisoners to sustain dangerous storm conditions while locked inside a cell, as every other citizen outside of the prison is evacuated from the geographical area, is not consistent with humane and dignified treatment of prisoners.
The impact that hurricanes have on southern communities is only going to worsen as the climate continues to change and severe weather patterns become more prominent. To respect the civil and human rights of all prisoners and thus comply with the United States Constitution and various international standards, governments should treat prison populations humanely when making preparation and safety decisions in anticipation of natural disaster. Locking citizens who have been convicted of crimes in cells is not cruel and unusual punishment. But locking them in these cells and abandoning them during potentially devastating weather conditions is cruel, unusual, and inhumane.