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Cruel & Unusual Punishment: The Forgotten Prisoners Left in Hurricane Ian’s Path

As Floridians evacuated their homes in preparation for category 5 Hurricane Ian to hit their state, officials left one group of people locked away to fend for themselves: inmates. In a statement by the Florida Department of Corrections yesterday, they announced that out of the state’s 176,000 inmates (the number of people collectively held in prisons, jails, and detention centers), approximately 2,500 of them had been evacuated. 

One might excuse this horrific violation of fundamental human rights by assuming that the 2,500 people had been those in the mandatory evacuation zones. However, they would be incorrect. Lee and Charlotte County, who were both in the Florida state-issued mandatory evacuation zones, refused to evacuate the incarcerated people trapped there.

When Fight Toxic Prisons, an organization advocating for these institutions’ evacuation, called the Charlotte County Jail to request the prison’s evacuation, the prison’s officials told them that the jail “serves as a shelter” and that the “building is sturdy.” “The building is sturdy” is reportedly popular excuse jails and prisons use to refuse evacuations. However, regardless of this statement’s validity, it remains incomprehensibly unethical to leave a group of trapped human beings behind to survive a category five hurricane alone. 

Furthermore, for prisoners, the threat extends past the actual hurricane. Often, due to power outages caused by storms, incarcerated people are left without a working AC, sanitary water, or food. These natural disasters also cause prisons, jails, and detention centers to be left without proper staff or healthcare services, leaving incarcerated people suffering from chronic diseases in even greater jeopardy. 

Some might excuse Florida state’s despicable behavior because the people in prison have broken our collective social contract and therefore do not deserve protection from the government. However, although no crime begets drowning in excrement-filled water, dying from heat exhaustion, or starvation, this thought requires a woeful mischaracterization of the nature of America’s justice system. 

The United States, the world’s freedom-loving democracy, holds 25% of the planet’s incarcerated people. A percentage uncomfortably high, considering the country holds only 4.25% of the world’s population. Even more concerning still is the fact that newborn Black boys have a greater than 1 in 4 chance of going to Federal or state prison, and Hispanic men have a 1 in 6 chance, while white men only have a 1 in 23 chance. (according to a study published by the Department of Justice) 

This information remains infuriating, yet it becomes more devastating once one realizes that the 13th Amendment, the Amendment that apparently illegalized slavery, also made slavery legal once a person is convicted of committing a crime. Corporations like Starbucks, Wal-Mart, Mcdonald’s, Sprint, Verizon, and Victoria’s Secret all profit from the use of inmate labor while paying Florida inmates between o cents and 55 cents an hour. 

While these people’s cheap, dependable labor is vital to boosting corporate America’s profit margins, it is apparent that in the eyes of Florida State officials, their lives and dignity remain insignificant.

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