When hurricanes strike—as they are with increasing regularity and severity these days—people who remain in their paths are typically considered one of two things: brave or foolish. But not everyone who remains does so voluntarily, including members of low-income communities, small-business owners and farmers, and the elderly and sick.
But there's another population that's often left behind—one we rarely talk about: incarcerated people. Even when cities are under mandatory evacuation orders, many corrections departments and facilities choose not to transfer incarcerated people to safe locations. Recently, as Hurricane Michael pummeled Florida with 155 mph winds, people in more than 15 prisons sat in their cells—hoping for the best. In September, South Carolina left 650 incarcerated people in the path of Hurricane Florence. And the year before that, a prison in Texas left some 1,800 people in harm's way during Hurricane Harvey, refusing to move them even after their drinking water had been compromised, their food had run low, the sewage had overflowed, and the prison had lost power.
The options for incarcerated people during weather crises are never optimal, but, fortunately, corrections departments in some places with frequent storms—like New Orleans—have learned from their mistakes and have begun to tackle, specifically, why so many people are in prison to begin with. The question now is this: Will others follow suit?
It's of course dangerous to hunker in place during a powerful storm, wherever you may be. Falling trees, downed electrical lines, collapsed roofs, dirty water, and dwindling food supplies can rapidly concoct a recipe for fatality. But prisons are especially ill-equipped to deal with these hardships, in large part because they usually go on lockdown during and after storms. During lockdowns, the people who would normally fix mechanical issues, cook and distribute food, and clear away debris are locked in their cells—and the correctional officers who could take over these jobs have often left town. During this time, it's not uncommon for visitation to be suspended and for phone lines to be dead, so communication with the outside world is even harder. Human rights violations can happen regularly, and it's difficult to let family or legal counsel know.
Unsurprisingly, one of the most egregious instances of prison abuse took place during what's been called "the most notorious storm of the 21st century." When Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans in 2005, the Orleans Parish Prison refused to evacuate its inhabitants before the storm. Many of those in holding cells hadn't been arrested for violent crimes—rather, they had been detained for things like having been drunk on Bourbon Street and having had unpaid parking tickets; there were even a few whose release date had already passed. When toxic water started to fill the prison, many of the staffers fled, and incarcerated people had no food or water for days; the guards who remained were instructed to shoot anyone who tried to leave.
For months afterward, hundreds of incarcerated people were unaccounted for, due either to escapes or to the destruction of records. Families had no idea if their loved ones were safe, or even alive. The situation triggered a massive investigation by the American Civil Liberties Union, and several lawsuits resulted in massive settlements.
Many of those who had been stuck in the New Orleans prison were eventually evacuated to other facilities, following a precedent that exists to this day: Evacuate only when death is imminent.
But it's not just the process of evacuating before a hurricane that's the problem. Puerto Rico, which Hurricane Maria devastated in 2017, underscores how issues can arise in the aftermath of these disasters. A year after the storm, the Puerto Rico Department of Corrections—responsible for more than 9,000 people—announced a $10 million contract with CoreCivic, the largest private-prison corporation in the country. The main reason? Moving over 3,000 incarcerated people from their wrecked facility to a private one in Arizona. The prison they're headed to, La Palma, has a long record of human rights violations, provides few resources in Spanish, and, on top of all that, lacks the communications channels for incarcerated people to talk with their families in other states. The Puerto Rican ACLU has aptly deemed it "human trafficking."
With officials often refusing to evacuate before a hurricane—and failing to make appropriate accommodations for evacuation after the storm passes—it can seem as if there's no way to address the perils faced by incarcerated people on this front. But here's where the story of New Orleans can serve as an instructive, valuable lesson for other cities and states.
Before Hurricane Katrina, the city put people in jail at four times the national average. Louisiana was known as the prison capital of the country, which in turn made it the prison capital of the world, given that, compared to other countries, America over-incarcerates its population. Hurricane Katrina showed how burdened New Orleans' public systems were and that criminal justice was no exception. With their system under a magnifying glass, policymakers in New Orleans got to work on solutions.
For one, as the city rebuilt its jail and prison system brick by brick, it changed some of the laws accordingly. Most notably, the city worked to establish pretrial services that allow low-income defendants to be released without paying a cash bail, and police officers are now discouraged from arresting people for petty crimes like disturbing the peace and marijuana possession, in favor of issuing court summons instead. When a new, 5,832-bed city jail was proposed to replace the one destroyed by flooding, community organizers pushed back—and the city listened. It created a new proposal, and eventually built a jail with much lower capacity—1,438 beds—as a promise to stop using incarceration reflexively in situations where it isn't necessary. The city partnered with the Vera Institute of Justice to source ideas for these changes and get help monitoring implementation.
While innovations like these began immediately following Hurricane Katrina, the city has served as an inspiration for the broader state in the more than 10 years since the storm. Just last year, Louisiana changed its sentencing laws to allow drug and alcohol treatment instead of prison for repeat DUIs, raised the threshold that separates a misdemeanor from a felony, and repealed mandatory minimums for common crimes like low-level drug possession, theft, and arson.
Hurricane Katrina, in ways obvious and subtle, changed how New Orleans and the state of Louisiana grapple with criminal justice challenges. By changing its laws so that fewer people end up in jail, New Orleans has done something arguably better than evacuating. And, because of this, its prison population has dropped by more than 67 percent since 2005. Hurricane Katrina, in other words, forced policymakers to fix not only some of the worst circumstances of incarceration, but also to prevent people from being held in dangerous conditions altogether.
Hurricane Katrina motivated real, meaningful change in New Orleans' prison and jail system, but it shouldn't require a disaster of this magnitude for leaders to see incarcerated people as just that: people. They deserve to be respected. And, above all, they deserve to be safe. Emergency preparedness for prisons isn't just sandbags and non-perishables—it's proactive, progressive policy change that reduces the number of people in these facilities in the first place.
This story originally appeared in New America's digital magazine, New America Weekly, a Pacific Standard partner site. Sign up to get New America Weekly delivered to your inbox, and follow @NewAmerica on Twitter.