Despite Mandatory Hurricane Evacuation, Jail in Flood Zone Does Not Move Inmates

by | September 17, 2018

By Emily Bohatch

As hundreds of thousands of people evacuate the coastal areas of South Carolina, more than 1,000 inmates in a Charleston County detention center will hunker down and weather out Hurricane Florence, a spokesman for the sheriff's office said.

Though the Al Cannon Detention Center is located in a Federal Emergency Management Agency flood zone and the county of Charleston is under a mandatory evacuation, officials will not be clearing the jail ahead of the storm, Capt. Roger Antonio said.

According to the jail's website, 1,047 men and 119 women are housed at the facility. It is operated by the Charleston County Sheriff's Office.

Unlike prisons, most inmates housed in jails or detention centers have not been convicted of the charges for which they are incarcerated. Many are waiting for a bond hearing from a judge, were denied bond all together or could not pay their bonds.

In an email, Antonio said the detention center, which received a new addition in 2010, was strong enough to withstand the storm. The jail has generators and medical staffing ready for Florence.

That portion of the jail can house 1,128 people, according to the sheriff's office website.

Though the building may be up to code, the entire jail facility -- including portions built in the 1960s -- falls into a FEMA flood plain, according to maps built by the federal agency.

The detention center is also in a dangerous zone on a flood-hazard map created by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Antonio said the jail has not had any issues with flooding before.

The whole of Charleston County remains under a mandatory evacuation order issued Monday by S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster. Though some counties were removed from the order Tuesday, Charleston County remained.

"We know the evacuation order I'm issuing will be inconvenient," McMaster said during a Monday news conference. "But we're not going to gamble with the lives of the people of South Carolina. Not a one."

The Al Cannon Detention Center, which sits near a bend in the Ashley River, is located within one of the mandatory evacuation zones.

On Wednesday, McMaster urged coastal residents to flee the storm.

"If you are in one of the evacuation zones, you need to leave now," he said Wednesday.

S.C. Sen. Marlon Kimpson, D-Charleston, said that South Carolina penal institutions, including jails and prisons, should evacuate residents in emergency situations such as this.

"Whether they're in jail or in prison as a convicted criminal, they're still human beings and we have to treat them as such," said Kimpson, who is on the Senate's Corrections and Penology committee.

He added that government officials should have a plan to evacuate inmates that is cognizant of security concerns.

"They don't lose their status of being a human being simply because they made some mistakes in life," Kimpson said.

During Hurricane Katrina, officials at the Orleans Parish Prison, the city jail for New Orleans, decided not to evacuate their residents, according to a report from the ACLU. Inmates who had yet to be convicted of the crimes they were accused of were left in a flooding facility without power, food or water for days.

Generators at the facility failed and many guards fled the prison, VICE news reported.

Prison advocates headed to the South Carolina State House on Wednesday morning to protest the decision to leave inmates at Ridgeland and MacDougall correctional institutions in their facilities.

On Wednesday, the Department of Corrections announced it would be moving inmates from a low-security facility out of harms way. The prison was not located in a mandatory evacuation zone, unlike MacDougall.

The Department of Corrections is not in charge of the Al Cannon Detention Center.

(c)2018 The State (Columbia, S.C.)