A familiar scene is unfolding in Florida as officials tally up the damages from the latest tropical storm. Though feared to be worse, Nicole made landfall on Nov. 10 as a Category 1 storm, though it still caused damage in the tens of billions of dollars across Florida and North Carolina. Nicole is the first tropical storm to hit the U.S. in November in almost 40 years. But just two months earlier, Category 4 Hurricane Ian tore through Florida, causing 137 deaths.
Climate change is making hurricanes more frequent and more destructive. Those of us in prison have little agency over how to prepare. In some cases, prisoners can be the proverbial “sitting ducks” in the path of hurricanes, as their relocation inland or to a safer locale depends solely on correctional administrators.
Every incarcerated person interviewed for this article in my South Carolina facility declined to give his name, out of concern that authorities will frown on them for talking to media. Few doubted the reality of climate change, and many felt it is already too late to reverse its effects.
During preparations for Hurricane Ian, in September, one prison maintenance worker told me: “Well, they got us taping windows and puttin’ away anything that the wind might pick up and hurl. There ain’t really a lot you can do if they don’t wanna send the guys upstate,” he said, referring to prisons in the western parts of the Carolinas.
Most facilities, especially in the South Carolina low country, anxiously watch a hurricane’s progress. Typically the storms make landfall in Florida and travel up Interstate 95, as if on a return trip north after a Sunshine State vacation.
But not always. In recent years, hurricanes making landfall in North Carolina have caused heavy damage to prisons. Hurricane Irene’s effects on Pamlico Correctional Institution, near North Carolina’s Pamlico Sound, is one example.
In 2018, a jail in North Carolina near Elizabethtown was affected by a hurricane. According to one man I spoke with who was incarcerated there, prisoners were rushed to evacuate. Most were unable to pack what meager possessions they had been able to maintain in jail.
“We was wading in knee high water jus’ to get outta the unit. It was scary in the dark,” he recalled. “Man, I had enough time to grab my photos and Bible, but nothing else.”
As Hurricane Harvey battered Gulf states in 2017, some Texas prisons were evacuated, but over 8,000 people across four prisons were left in the storm’s path, according to reporting by The Nation. Some people waited out the storm in flooded prisons without sufficient food or water. Ahead of the monster Hurricane Florence, in 2018, South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster issued a mandatory evacuation order along the coast. But as The New Yorker detailed, several South Carolina state prisons did not evacuate, despite lying within the mandatory evacuation zone.
It can be scary for prisoners here with family members in the low country, coastal areas and even in Florida. They are naturally worried but helpless to do anything while behind bars. “What can I do?” asked one inmate who just started a 15-year sentence. “I ain’t there, so I can’t help my people. I gotta pray that God will do what I can’t.”
Some incarcerated people feel the preparations facilities do make for natural disasters like hurricanes is too much. When storms loom, rules might prohibit outdoor activities, visitations and meaIs in dining halls. If generators are needed, cooking stops and meals become cold cuts and cereal. Outside medical appointments get canceled too. Inmates in Carolina prisons are just now beginning to see an easing of lockdown restrictions from the COVID-19 pandemic, so when these storm preparations are put in place, it feels to some like a return to the isolation of the pandemic days.
“By the time ol’ Ian gets to us, he’ll be nothing more than a little wind and rain,” said one old-timer ahead of the September 2022 hurricane. He feels the prison system tends to have a knee-jerk reaction to such storms.
Whatever the case, for prison populations in the path of increasingly dangerous storms, the choice about how to respond will remain in someone else’s hands.
Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.