In the end, New York City was spared the worst of Hurricane Irene’s deadly wrath. But even as Mayor Mike Bloomberg called for the early and swift implementation of the city’s emergency plan, it became clear that the city had knowingly overlooked people living smack dab between Queens and the Bronx: the city’s 12,000 inmates at Rikers Island.
Over the weekend Bloomberg announced that inmates would not be evacuated from the prison because it did not fall in the mandatory evacuation zone. However, on the city’s emergency zoning map, Rikers Island was not categorized under any zone at all. While the surrounding areas around Rikers were categorized as zone B or zone C, places of lesser danger that would likely only be seriously impacted in case Irene became a Category 2 or 3, on the city’s zoning map Rikers sits alone as an empty dot swimming in the middle of other zones where emergency plans were already in place.
Even though Bloomberg has been praised for his management of the storm, his administration has come under fire for its apparent choice to ignore the welfare of Rikers Island inmates. Samantha Levine, a spokesperson from the mayor’s office, reiterated, as other city officials have in the recent days, that Rikers Island was not in the mandatory evacuation zone.
"Rikers Island was not in low lying areas," Levine said. "We were focused in areas where real dangers existed. People had no reason to be concerned about the situation at Rikers Island because it was not in danger."
"What seems suspect was that it seemed extremely unlikely that literally everything around Rikers was a zone B or C but that Rikers would be in no danger at all," said Shana Agid, a member of the prisoners rights and criminal justice reform group Critical Resistance.
What’s more, the city’s Department of Correction told the New York Times that no hypothetical evacuation plan even existed for Rikers Island.
When asked what zone, exactly, the island might fall in in the case of future disaster, Levine reiterated that Rikers Island was not considered an evacuation zone this time around.
Others say that in prisoner rights activists’ behind-the-scenes talks with city administrators over the past few days, the city made it clear that it did have a plan to move inmates on lower lying areas on Rikers to higher ground in the case of flooding, but that city officials made an early determination that the entire island was on high enough ground that they did not need their plan.
"It sounded like rather than having an evacuation plan they had a contingency plan," said Agid. "They didn’t have a solid plan in place but it also sounds like they didn’t have no plan at all."
In its weekend action alert, Critical Resistance asked supporters to demand that the city create an explicit emergency evacuation plan for Rikers Island inmates in place of the current unofficial plans. The news that there were neither immediate plans for evacuation nor an official emergency plan for Rikers Island inmates incensed many who said the situation held too many echoes of New Orleans’ abandonment of inmates at Orleans Parish Prison following Hurricane Katrina.
In 2005, hundreds of inmates were abandoned at Orleans Parish Prison after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans. Inmates, left to fend for themselves after guards left the jail, were stranded in their cells as the water level in the flooding jail rose around them, according to a 2006 ACLU report that detailed the turn of events. Some bore holes in the walls and other shattered windows and used pipes to break down their cell doors, but not everyone survived. Inmates who managed to escape waved burning t-shirts from the windows and waved signs as helicopters flew above, but inmates reported that no one came to their rescue. Human Rights Watch researchers, cross-checking a list of inmates that were housed at Orleans Parish Prison just before Katrina hit against lists of those who were eventually evacuated the following week, found 517 people unaccounted for.
More than one corrections officer told Human Rights Watch that there was no evacuation plan for OPP either.
The memory of Katrina is still fresh in many people’s minds. Agid, who visited OPP the following year, could still remember the water mark in prison cells well over eight feet high. Those who were held at OPP were people who had been arrested for disorderly conduct and public drunkenness, and many of those held in the jail had yet to be charged with any crime at all.
Over the weekend, critics of the city have said that New York has a responsibility not to repeat the same abuses committed by New Orleans. And now, while other states further north deal with the worst of Irene, many are wondering what, if any plans, other cities have for dealing with their inmates.
Levine, from Bloomberg’s office, said the city would reassess its plans with every potential threat of disaster. "If there was a future potential situation then we would make a determination at that time," Levine said.
Rikers Island inmates, Agid said, are people with their own families and loved ones.
"They are people too," Agid said. "The extent to which that gets forgotten when we talk about whether or not someone should be rescued is indicative of how well the trick of locking people up works."