Federal prisoners in Florida and Texas did not fare well after hurricanes Irma and Harvey struck, write Van Jones of Dream Corps and Jessica Jackson Sloan, mayor of Mill Valley, Ca., for CNN. Sloan is co-founder of #cut50, a bipartisan group seeking to reduce prison populations. While Texas and Florida authorities safely relocated most of the inmates in the state prisons, the U.S. Bureau of Prisons did not follow suit. As a result, some incarcerated people in the hardest hit areas in federal prisons were left in their cells to face the flooding, water shortages and power outages. If reports from family members are accurate, their living conditions violated the constitutional prohibition against “cruel and unusual” punishment, say Jones and Sloan. In stark contrast, zoos were cleared, hundreds of Florida horses were relocated, and dolphins were airlifted to safety.
As extreme weather events like killer heat waves and hurricanes become more common, all levels of governments must develop common sense plans to protect those they lock up, say Jones and Sloan. At the federal prison in Beaumont, Tx., prisoners told family members they were stuck in their cells as water rose above their ankles and the smell of sewage from backed-up toilets grew so intense they had to wrap towels over their noses to fall asleep. Federal prison officials dispute claims of water in cells. The Prison Legal Advocacy Network says Beaumont prisoners continue to suffer from inadequate food and water supplies. Inmates are urinating and defecating in plastic bags to preserve the water in their cell’s toilet for drinking. Some prisoners told family members they have been unable to receive medication, despite officials’ assurances that inmates are getting 24-hour-a-day access to medical coverage. No journalists or outside observers have been allowed to see the conditions of the prison and the inmates.