You can find some of the most beautiful beaches, tastiest foods, and a rich, vibrant history of community, struggle, and perseverance throughout The Sunshine State. However, for as much beauty as Florida has to offer, the State also stands out for its incarceration rates. According to the Prison Policy Institute, we have an incarceration rate of 795 per 100,000 people, which combines populations in prison, local jails, immigration centers, and also juvenile justice centers. Florida's incarceration rate exceeds that of the entirety of the United States and several other countries as well.
According to the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, only 17 percent of Florida's population is Black per the 2020 Census. Yet, the Florida Department of Corrections reports that 47 percent of its incarcerated population is Black. Systemic racism within the criminal justice system is to blame.
Considering the sizable population of people within the custody of the state or one of its counties, one might presume that the State has a strong commitment to those in their care when deadly disasters threaten to strike. However, county officials in Hillsborough County, Florida seem unconcerned, unprepared, and unequipped to provide adequate protection and safety to our incarcerated neighbors.
As Hurricane Idalia loomed off the Florida's west coast in late August, Hillsborough County went from being on Hurricane Watch to a Hurricane Warning. That same day, Hillsborough County Emergency Management officials ordered a mandatory evacuation for all residents in Zone A. During the 2022 hurricane season, the local news reported that "storm surge zones are based on the likelihood an area will flood with the projected rise in sea level due to a hurricane," with Zone A calling for evacuations when there is a storm surge prediction of 11 feet or more.
The Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office operates two jails in the county, which handles all adult bookings and detainment throughout the county and its various municipalities. Falkenburg Road Jail is located in a higher elevation, listed on the county map as Zone E, and therefore, not in the evacuation zone. However, Orient Road Jail is located in Zone A.
"I cannot stress enough the importance of being prepared," Tim Dudley, Hillsborough County Office of Emergency Management Director, stated at an August 28 press conference. "All storms are very different and this storm brings some unique threats."
At the same conference, Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister said: "We know regardless of what this storm does, it's a lot of uncertainty right now, we know how quickly storms can change…we're here to make sure that we ensure the safety of everybody in this community, so please, heed the warnings."
Heed the warnings, indeed—if you're able to do so. Surely, I thought, with such strong words uttered by the sheriff who is in charge of the Hillsborough County Jails, this would include the safety of those incarcerated within Orient Road Jail.
If his goal, as he states, is to ensure the safety of everybody in this community, it must include our incarcerated neighbors. Right?
I went on a complicated journey to find out.
Following the Zone A evacuation announcement, I reached out to the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office as a representative of the Restorative Justice Coalition, a grassroots advocacy organization I co-founded in 2017. As the department in charge of managing the county jails, the Sheriff's Office would have insight on the evacuation plan.
Each year, the Restorative Justice Coalition participates in and facilitates calls-to-action to ensure the safety of the incarcerated during hazardous events, including past hurricanes and the pandemic. Normally, we're able to receive clear answers, even if we aren't satisfied with them. This year, however, upon contacting the Sheriff's Office—initially by phone, and then later by email—I found myself unable to get a well-defined answer. At first, I was told that the booking procedures had been changed and that all new bookings would be moved to Falkenburg Road Jail, the jail that is geographically safer during a storm. However, when I inquired about the status of those who had already been booked into the Orient Road Jail, which again, sits in Zone A, earlier in the week, the public affairs team informed me that those being detained were already moved to the safer location. Upon further questioning, the team backtracked and stated that not everyone had been evacuated yet, but rather, the goal was to ensure everyone was moved.
Later in the evening, I received an additional email from the Chief Communications Officer at the Sheriff's Office, who informed me that everything I was told earlier was incorrect. The booking operations had not been moved, no detained people had been evacuated to higher ground, and there was no plan to do so. Essentially, the detained community was to stay in place, despite the urging of the sheriff earlier in the day that everyone heed the evacuation order.
Climate change and carceral geography work in tandem to restrict movement and safety. When prisons' fluctuations of instability and alienation only heighten the vulnerabilities wrought by natural disasters, 'where is home in a place that no one wants to be in?'
Jails and prisons are historically dangerous places during harsh weather events such as hurricanes.
In 2019, 200 incarcerated persons in Bay County Jail during Hurricane Michael filed a lawsuit against the sheriff, alleging unsanitary conditions and mismanagement, which led to health difficulties for those incarcerated during and after the hazardous weather event, according to the Tallahassee Democrat. A couple of years later in 2021, The Intercept reported that Hurricane Ida left many incarcerated Louisianans in unsafe and unsanitary conditions. Likewise, in 2022, controversy surrounded the refusal of Lee County Sheriff's Office to evacuate incarcerated persons despite the jail being located in an evacuation zone, USA Today reported. Attorney Rene Suarez was not able to speak to his client, who was incarcerated in Lee County, until just one week after Ian's landfall. His client informed him of "poor sanitary conditions in the downtown jail and a rationing of water that was so severe she had gotten a urinary tract infection." While jail officials told USA Today the claims were not accurate, attorney Danielle O'Halloran told the publication that their clients had observed jail staff rationing drinking water, and that the jail itself may have experienced flooding.
Florida has a documented practice of leaving the incarcerated behind during weather emergencies. "We're disappointed that they did not make the decisions to evacuate in those areas… Officials who made the decision basically decided to gamble human lives," I told Prison Legal News amid Hurricane Ian in 2022.
Gambling with human lives is exactly what Hillsborough County Sheriff Chronister has decided to do this year. While state prison officials confirmed to the Tampa Bay Times they had evacuated several of their facilities, including approximately 4,000 incarcerated people, sheriffs in Levy, Taylor, and Franklin Counties joined Hillsborough County in this horrific gamble and refused to evacuate the jails, even though some acknowledged possible power outages to be expected as a result. While news reports showed a shift in the direction of the storm by August 29, we must recall the words of the sheriff himself during the press conference the day prior: "It's a lot of uncertainty right now, we know how quickly storms can change."
Every day, human beings are taken from their homes or the street and incarcerated in Hillsborough County. And like many county jails throughout the country, many people sit in jail awaiting trial simply because they cannot afford to post bail, even though they have not yet been found guilty of any crime. Guilty or innocent, though, the individuals inside these walls are human beings deserving of, at a bare minimum, safety and comfort.
When major hurricanes threaten our counties, the Restorative Justice Coalition and groups such as the Campaign to Fight Toxic Prisons, demand jail and prison officials move those incarcerated to safety. Family members may often be left to wonder what the status is of their loved ones, while correctional staff are forced to remain in unsanitary, hazardous working conditions. These issues are part of a deeper narrative within the State of Florida, that despite the beauty of our beaches and the vibrancy of our culture, there are some people the State has decided aren't worthy of protection during a life-threatening storm.
We cannot allow the State to continue to disregard the health and safety of our incarcerated neighbors in silence. We must demand that until everybody's free, the systems holding them within their custody are accountable for preserving the health and safety of all.
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