Jones & Sloan: Just as it's necessary to protect animals from hurricanes, it's necessary to evacuate prisoners in the face of an oncoming storm
The founders forbade cruel and unusual punishment, and we must do better to treat our prisoners with dignity
Editor’s Note: CNN political commentator Van Jones is president of Dream Corps and Rebuild the Dream, which promote innovative solutions for America’s economy. He was President Barack Obama’s green jobs adviser in 2009. Jessica Jackson Sloan is the national director and co-founder of #cut50, a bipartisan effort to reduce the US prison population while keeping communities safe. Jessica also serves as the Mayor of Mill Valley, California. The views expressed in this commentary are their own.
With all the stories of heroism and tragedy in the wake of Hurricanes Irma and Harvey, one group of people have been left out of sight and out of our hearts: the incarcerated men and women in our federal correctional facilities.
While Texas and Florida authorities safely relocated most of the inmates in the state prisons, the men and women who were locked in our federal prisons were not so fortunate. The Federal Bureau of Prisons stated it did not intend to evacuate its facilities in the paths of Hurricanes Irma or Harvey in Beaumont, Texas or in Florida. And based on reports from several of those facilities, prisoners were not evacuated, could not flee and continue to suffer.
As a result, some incarcerated people in the hardest hit areas in federal prisons were left in their cells to face the flooding, water shortages and power outages. If reports from family members and loved ones of people in these facilities are accurate, their living conditions violated the constitutional prohibition against “cruel and unusual” punishment.
In stark contrast, the American people, who are big-hearted and compassionate, would not even allow animals in captivity to be left behind. Zoos were responsibly staffed or dutifully cleared. Animal shelters pleaded for the safety of stray cats and dogs. Hundreds of Florida horses were relocated. Dolphins were airlifted to safety.
Americans understood immediately that caged animals cannot get out of harm’s way when a hurricane comes. This heroism was necessary, justified and praiseworthy. After all, saving lives is what we are supposed to do in a crisis.
The federal government should learn from the American people’s example. Federal prison authorities have human beings in their care and custody who are equally unable to flee. Whatever their offense, an American jury would never sentence anyone to be deprived of medication, food or water for weeks on end – or to die in a flood. As extreme weather events like killer heat waves and hurricanes become more common, all levels of governments must develop common sense plans to better protect those whom they lock up.
The status quo is not working, especially not at the federal level. When Hurricane Harvey bore down on the Greater Houston region, the 2,109 people at a federal prison facility in Beaumont, Texas, were out of luck. Federal authorities left them behind to wait out the storm. Several prisoners told family members they were stuck in their cells as water rose above their ankles and the smell of sewage from backed-up toilets grew so intense they had to wrap towels over their noses just to fall asleep. Federal prison officials dispute the claims of water in cells.
According to a recent filing by the Prison Legal Advocacy Network, for two weeks now, individuals living in US Penitentiary (USP) Beaumont have continued to suffer from inadequate food and water supplies. We have heard first-hand accounts of people urinating and defecating in plastic bags to preserve the water in their cell’s toilet for drinking. The Federal Bureau of Prisons told The Houston Chronicle that due to limited water in the city, they are relying on water reserves and providing bottled water.
Some prisoners have also told family members that they have been unable to receive medication, despite the Federal Bureau of Prisons assurances that people in that prison are receiving 24-hour-a-day access to medical coverage.
No journalists or outside observers have been allowed in to see the conditions of the prison and the inmates. But if the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina is any indication, we have every reason to be concerned. In Orleans Parish Prison 11 years ago, sheriffs left 6,500 incarcerated people to fight for their survival as water rose to their chests. According to an ACLU report, they were told they would be shot if they tried to escape a flooding building. Some juveniles were sent to adult facilities, where pregnant girls went days without ventilation, food, water or medical care.
Here’s the thing. In Texas and Florida, both county jails and state prisons managed to evacuate most of the people in their care. Even SeaWorld and Busch Gardens had robust emergency plans to make sure their staff and animals would be moved somewhere safe – or at least had adequate water, food and medication.
It’s not rocket science. We know it can be done. But apparently the Federal Bureau of Prisons didn’t bother. In our country, we follow the rule of law; the founders forbade “cruel and unusual punishment” for a reason. And it is cruel to abandon human beings to face conditions that no American would allow a horse or a dog to suffer.
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In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Congress was flooded with calls and letters after stories surfaced of abandoned pets that perished during the flooding. We should come together in a similar fashion to ensure that the treatment of people in USP Beaumont is never endured again.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions recently appointed Army Maj. Gen. Mark Inch to head up the Federal Bureau of Prisons. We hope Inch gets to work. Because if we can airlift dolphins to safety, we certainly have the means to load people into vans and out of harm’s way.
We have the tools, we just need the compassion and the political will. Inch should act now to come up with an emergency plan to protect prisoners during extreme weather events. In fact, he is constitutionally bound to do so.
These are human beings we are talking about. The time to act is now.