Hurricane evacuation out of the hands of South Carolina prison inmates

A South Carolina Department of Corrections prisoner walks along the upper level of a prison dormitory at the Turbeville Correctional Institution in Turbeville.

Over the past three weeks, millions of people across Florida, Texas, Puerto Rico and parts of South Carolina fled their homes to areas they hoped would be spared from three major hurricanes.

Among the most vulnerable residents in hurricane-prone areas are also ones whose mobility and ability to seek shelter is entirely out of their hands — inmates serving time.

By any measure, implementing evacuation of prisons and jails is a colossal logistical undertaking — a series of steps that are determined weeks, if not months, in advance depending on the forecast of the storm, corrections officials said, and in some cases practiced throughout the year.

'We're not going to wait'

In South Carolina, for as much planning and preparation that goes into hurricane evacuation at a prison, it's also not a regular event.

The S.C. Department of Corrections has not seen an evacuation of one of its facilities since 1999, when MacDougall Correctional Institution was evacuated during Hurricane Floyd, the agency said.

"In most cases, it is safer for the public, officers, and inmates for a SCDC facility to hold in place rather than transfer and hold in a secondary location," Jeff Taillon, an SCDC spokesman, said in a statement.

SCDC works with the S.C. Emergency Management Division as well as the Governor's Office to evaluate "any natural disaster in real time," Taillon added.

The Governor's Office did not return calls seeking comment.

Citing security concerns, both Taillon and a spokesman for SCEMD said they were limited in what they could discuss about evacuations for inmates.

Derrec Becker, spokesman for SCEMD, said in the event of an inmate evacuation, SCDC has the resources of the department entirely at its disposal, including access to additional transportation and staff.

Beyond state prisons, regional jails, too, face the potential for evacuation and can be used to receive inmate evacuees.

In Charleston County, Maj. Eric Watson said the Sheriff's Office, which oversees about 1,100 inmates, hasn't had to evacuate them in at least two decades. Evacuation readiness, though, he said remains a priority.

"That’s something you have to prepare for on a regular basis," Watson said. "We’re living on the East Coast. That’s part of our strategic planning in terms of emergency preparation."

The evacuation would take place over several days.

"If we were to experience a major catastrophic event, obviously we're not going to wait ... to transfer 1,000 inmates at one time," he said. "It will be a phase process."

The department goes as far as to carry out dry-run evacuations four times a year, Watson added.

Echoing Taillon's position of evacuating as a last resort, Watson said it's often safer, depending on the track of a storm, to shelter in place at the jail.

"We have a strong facility infrastructure set up in the jail that can sustain severe storms," he said. "Every storm presents a different set of challenges to different facilities. Some can sustain a major storm while others cannot."

Elsewhere, the dire nature of these kinds of evacuations was on full display during storms Irma and Maria.

Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico last week as a Category 4 storm with 155 mph winds. With a communications blackout across the island, it still is not clear whether the nearly three-dozen prisons and detention centers across Puerto Rico — at least eight of which are along the coast or near high-risk flood areas — evacuated inmates ahead of Maria, according The Marshall Project, a nonprofit criminal justice publication.

Before that, in Florida it was Irma that forced the largest evacuation of prisoners in the state's history. More than 12,000 inmates at facilities in lowlying areas were transported to the northern part of the state, the Florida Department of Corrections said. The evacuation took three days.

Juveniles, too

Meanwhile, there's also juvenile inmates at a handful of facilities across the state to take into consideration. At the S.C. Department of Juvenile Justice, spokesman Patrick Montgomery said the agency evacuated during Irma and, in 2016, for Hurricane Matthew.

Before Irma hit, a convoy of vans, buses and other DJJ vehicles evacuated about six dozen juveniles to its Columbia facilities, according to the agency. There are about 1,000 juveniles under DJJ care at any one time.

Ahead of the storm, visitation is typically suspended. But Montgomery also said that parents and guardians are contacted before and after the evacuation, at which point family members are told where their juvenile is being located. 

"There's much planning that goes into it," Montgomery said. "We're entrusted with the youth and the juveniles. We're always having to consider the fact they have their families at home that worry. ... We have to assure the families at home that they are being moved safely and ahead of the storm."

Reach Michael Majchrowicz at 843-607-1052. Follow him on Twitter @mjmajchrowicz.

Michael Majchrowicz is a reporter covering crime and public safety. He previously wrote about courts for the Daily Hampshire Gazette in Northampton, Massachusetts. A Hoosier native, he graduated from Indiana University with a degree in journalism.