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Some Prisoners Forced To Stay Put Despite Evacuation Orders


Some choose to stay in the storm, while others have no choice, like those in South Carolina prisons. At least two detention facilities in South Carolina that fell within government-mandated evacuation zones did not relocate their inmates. Governor Henry McMaster said so this week. Reporter Daniel Gross is covering the story for The New Yorker. He's on the line. Good morning.

DANIEL GROSS: Good morning.

INSKEEP: OK. Why not evacuate, as Virginia and North Carolina did for their prisons?

GROSS: I spoke yesterday to the director of the prison system in South Carolina. And he described it as a problem of having to play hopscotch. He was concerned that if he was to evacuate one of his prisons, they would have a caravan of buses driving down congested highways and not necessarily knowing where to go in a very overcrowded prison system.

INSKEEP: Oh, you don't have a lot of extra cells inland, I guess.

GROSS: That's what he told me.

INSKEEP: Now, with that said, I mean, you don't want the prisoners to drown. These facilities, do they appear to be, like, on high ground? Are they safe?

GROSS: I've spoken to two people who are currently in the South Carolina prison system. They spoke to me through contraband cellphones. And independently, they both described incidents on the bottom floor of a prison that did flood in past storms. And so they had a real fear that the water would rise inside their cells. And one of them described the water reaching his ankles before a correctional officer let him out of that cell. That was an account that the director of the prison system disputed.

INSKEEP: Do authorities have a plan for flooding in a prison that they chose not to evacuate?

GROSS: Authorities told me they did have a plan. They said that they had supplies for 10 days. They had generators and pumps. They also posted on Twitter a photograph of 30,000 sandbags that prisoners had been forced to fill. But I'm still hearing a lot of fear and a sense of powerlessness from the folks who are inside these prisons.

INSKEEP: I would imagine somebody listening to this is fearing something else - the possibility that if you started moving hundreds of prisoners at a time, say, that you might have an escape or a lot of escapes. When there have been these kinds of evacuations in the past, have people escaped?

GROSS: I haven't heard of that happening. That is the concern that was raised by the director of the prisons. But I'm hearing activists question that claim, saying that it could have been an issue of money or understaffing and not really an issue of public safety.

INSKEEP: Very briefly, how many prisoners now are we talking about here in these facilities?

GROSS: I would say thousands have the potential to be directly affected, in the high hundreds really within the path of the storm.

INSKEEP: Daniel Gross of The New Yorker, thanks very much.

GROSS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.