Skip to main content

As Hurricane Florence Approaches, One South Carolina Inmate Says 'Prisoners Are Extremely Nervous' About Their Safety

Pacific Standard spoke with an inmate in Lee Correctional Institution as he and other prisoners prepared for the storm.
Waves created by Hurricane Florence are seen along Cherry Grove Fishing Pier on September 14th, 2018, in North Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.

Waves created by Hurricane Florence are seen along Cherry Grove Fishing Pier on September 14th, 2018, in North Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.

As Hurricane Florence rips its way toward South Carolina, state and local governments have warned citizens to prepare for the worst. In Lee County—a rural inland farm area to the west of Columbia—tropical storm warnings are in effect. Public alerts for the county warn of gale-force winds and flash floods, and rivers threaten to flood their banks. The impacts of floodwaters, reports warn, could be "devastating to catastrophic."

Lee Correctional Institution, a prison located in the county, lies between the Black and Lynches rivers. But as others in the area prepare for the storm, take shelter, or flee even further inland, prisoners in Lee say they have been forced to remain on lockdown—just as they have since a riot that killed seven inmates in April (deaths that some blame on the prison staff's inaction).

"Prisoners are extremely nervous about this storm. Everyone is locked in. [There is] no movement," Tony, an inmate at Lee, writes to Pacific Standard via text.

Tony, who spoke to Pacific Standard on the condition of anonymity, has been incarcerated at Lee for eight years. Though he hasn't experienced a hurricane while in prison, he says he and other prisoners have heard about incarcerated people suffering during natural disasters.

The inmates are worried about water, Tony says: "We are afraid we will get no fresh water, like what happened in the past. Prisoners have been forced to drink dirty water."

Tony says that prisoners have been storing water in anything that can hold it. In a few cases, he says, guards have taken containers. (Reporting for The New Yorker, Daniel A. Gross said he had talked to prisoners in South Carolina and learned that some were not allowed to store bottled water to prepare for the storm, as the containers are considered contraband.)

During Hurricane Katrina in 2005, inmates trapped in New Orleans prisons reported hellish conditions. In hundreds of interviews with inmates after Katrina, human rights groups were told stories of chest-high, sewage-contaminated floodwater filling locked cells; prisoners going without water or food for days; and staff abandoning prisoners as the guards and others fled for safety.

Tony says he has no illusions that Lee's prison staff will stay put: If the waters rise, he expects the staff to abandon the inmates.

As mandatory evacuation orders were lifted later in the week, inmates at another South Carolina prison that did not evacuate, MacDougall Correctional Institution, were required to stay and fill thousands of sandbags for flood preparation, according to a tweet from the state's correctional department.

Tony says that prisoners in Lee have not been asked to fill sandbags or perform other work, as the entire prison, to the best of his knowledge, is on lockdown. (The South Carolina Department of Corrections did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Tony's claims.) He says prisoners who were on work release have been moved to locked areas for the storm. He worries that, if there's flooding, prisoners could drown in their cells.

He also says information from staff has been minimal: Tony knows of no evacuation plans for potential flooding, and says that "staff has given no pep talks."

"We feel [that] allowing for our confinement in prisons that are in Hurricane Florence's direct path ... is absolutely inexcusable," Tony says. "Prison officials, for the most part, do not view us as humans."