As the East Coast braced for Hurricane Irene this weekend, with hundreds of thousands of mandatory evacuations ordered, one particular group of potential storm targets was forced to fend for themselves regardless of what the weather brought, prisoners. Despite the world-famous city of islands and insomnia (Manhattan Island, Brooklyn and Queens, Staten Island) shutting down the public transportation system and forcing residents located in vulnerable zones to leave their homes, there was no evacuation plan–nor plan to evacuate– prisoners on Rikers Island, according to Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
You may be thinking, “of course not,” “should there have been?”, or even “why would there have been?” But I ask you, “why wouldn’t there been?”, at least an evacuation plan. Despite being labeled on the evacuation map, the prison was not included among the sites to be accounted for in the event of an emergency.
The subjective value society places on life is an interesting and more than controversial phenomenon. In a nation that goes through great pains to confirm its submission to divine authority, many people play God with others’ very existences, making judgments and decisions about their right to life and about the quality of their lives. Politicians and religious leaders argue vehemently in defense of the life of embryos or fetuses in utero, sometimes even at the expense of the life of its mother. (No, I don’t want to get into that debate here.) Michael Vick was publicly reviled and imprisoned for endangering the lives of canines, and environmentalists conduct endless campaigns to save trees and other plant life. Yet, many people will still debate why a prison should have an evacuation plan.
Practical concerns might arise over where to temporarily house the prisoners, but that is a common dilemma during evacuations. People do not always have someplace else to go. However, in order for the dilemma to be solved, it must first be addressed with the development of a plan of action for emergencies. In some ways, it might actually be easier to relocate prisoners than to relocate other ordinary citizens because the state would undoubtedly provide assistance, whereas many families have to find their own shelter.
Other concerns like the possibility of escape and the danger of potentially exposing the prisoners to society again could also likely be minimized with careful thought and planning. Those who feel that criminals do not deserve to be evacuated because prison is punishment and being trapped in a hurricane would simply be part of that should also consider that not all of the people on Rikers Island have been convicted of a crime yet, not all of those convicted of crimes are guilty, and the vast majority of many prisoners are imprisoned for non-violent crimes. Some of the prisoners are children. The same holds true for many other prisoners in other institutions nationwide.
Here’s another novel concept, even those guilty of committing crimes deserve a fair chance to preserve their lives in the event of an emergency. No one wants to be an afterthought. It is often said that people cannot truly empathize with people or situations to which they feel that they cannot relate, yet human error is universal. Any one of us could be one second, one incident, one injustice, or one misunderstanding away from a prison cell at any given moment, and we would want the justice system and the general public to be considerate of our needs.
Much has been written, spoken, researched, and campaigned for regarding prison reform. While the occupants of Rikers Island may be forced to navigate the waters this weekend, society won’t be safe to swim until criminal justice and human rights issues like these are adequately addressed and resolved. Until we learn to acknowledge, value, and honor everyone’s humanity, without regard for our own opinions, assumptions, and fears, no real change will ever be accomplished.