Left behind in the storm

Nicole Colson reports on New York City officials' refusal to evacuate Rikers Island.

Rikers Island at the mouth of Long Island Sound, between Queens and the Bronx (Doc Searls)Rikers Island at the mouth of Long Island Sound, between Queens and the Bronx (Doc Searls)

BILLIONAIRE NEW York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg had a message for the prisoners of Rikers Island and their families as Hurricane Sandy descended on the city: Your lives don't matter.

At an October 28 press conference the day before the storm hit the East Coast, Bloomberg was questioned about the safety of some 12,000 prisoners, including hundreds of juveniles, housed at Rikers, an island at the mouth of the Long Island Sound, between Queens and the Bronx. His response: "Rikers Island, the land is up where they are, and jails are secured...Don't worry about anybody getting out."

But that's exactly what the family members of prisoners were worried about--whether their loved ones behind bars could get to higher ground if Rikers flooded as a result of the hurricane. As this article was being published, there was no reports about the fate of the prisoners, 24 hours after Sandy made landfall.

That Bloomberg thought only about the safety of those outside the walls of Rikers, and not about health and safety of those inside, reveals how little the lives of prisoners matter to people like the mayor. In a statement issued while the hurricane was still offshore, Center for Constitutional Rights Executive Director Vincent Warren condemned Bloomberg's decision:

It is unconscionable that the city has made no plans for the evacuation of Riker's Island. The city has an obligation to help ensure the safety of all its residents. With Hurricane Sandy bearing down on the East Coast and indications that the storm's impact could be far greater than Hurricane Irene's (where the city also failed to include Riker's in its evacuation plan), we urge Mayor Bloomberg to belatedly to show some concern for the lives of the 12,000 men, women and children whose ability to escape this storm is entirely at the city's mercy.

It is appalling that the lessons of Hurricane Katrina--where prisoners at Orleans Parish Prison were abandoned and left in locked cells, some standing in chest-high sewage-tainted water--remain stubbornly unlearned by the leadership of our city.

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THIS IS not the first time New York officials have failed to protect Rikers prisoners in the face of a serious storm.

In August 2011, the prison watchdog group Solitary Watch reported that Bloomberg and Rikers officials had no evacuation plan for the prisoners during Hurricane Irene. While 250,000 New Yorkers were ordered to evacuate, nothing was done to remove Rikers prisoners, despite the prison's location in the heart of one of the areas where the evacuation order applied.

The New York Department of Corrections claimed in a statement that no evacuation was necessary during Hurricane Sandy because "Rikers Island facilities are NOT in low-lying areas, and therefore like nearby small islands Roosevelt Island and City Island, are not seriously threatened by severe flooding."

But as Salon.com's Natasha Lennard pointed out, city evacuation zone maps showed all coastal areas in the immediate areas surrounding Rikers to be highlighted orange or yellow and listed as evacuation zones (given a letter designation of A, B or C). Rikers remained the only "grey" area in that vicinity on the map.

The city's assurances also ring hollow to the family members of those incarcerated. Solitary Watch quoted Lisa Ortega, a member of the New York City Jails Action Coalition (JAC), whose 16-year-old son was housed at Rikers last year during Hurricane Irene. As Ortega pointed out, the only entrance and exit from Rikers is a single bridge, which would likely not be able to accommodate the evacuation of 12,000 prisoners and thousands more civilian staff.

According to Ortega, "Last year my son said, inmates were all put on lockdown, and given sandwiches in their cells instead of being let out to eat. The guards told them it was so there would be 'no panic or possible takeover' by inmates." Ortega added that her son said guards had told inmates, "If shit goes down, we are out of here."

As Francisco Quinones, also a member of JAC, told Solitary Watch, "[We need to] demand that [the Department of Corrections] have a plan for the people living in Rikers Island. Remember that those jailed there are also human and deserve a chance to live."