Rikers Island is a prison island located in the East River between Queens and the Bronx, and hosts 12,000 inmates. In the days before Sandy released her wrath on New York and New Jersey, despite the island’s location—extremely close to areas such as LaGuardia Airport, which was zoned for evacuation, Rikers Island was not among the places marked for evacuation come storm time. While only zone A was supposed to receive flooding, New Yorkers saw flooding and damage come well into the B and even C zones in some cases. Rikers Island was not classified as Zone A, B, nor C and ended up not reportedly facing any significant troubles during the storm—but given its location near the mouth of the Long Island sound, which we saw flood heavily—provoked the question in many New Yorkers’ minds: Is there an evacuation plan for Riker’s Island? And if so—what is it?
Last Sunday, in response to a question about the island’s evacuation, Mayor Bloomberg, seeming to misunderstand the question about inmate evacuation, remarked: “[on]Rikers Island, the land is up where they are and jails are secured…Don’t worry about anybody getting out.” The reporters were not, in fact, worried about people escaping, but rather about the safety of the Prisoners who could potentially be stuck on a death trap of an island, whose only point of access is via the Rikers Island Bridge. As we saw with Sandy, before the worst of the flooding, power outages, and the strongest winds arrived, bridges were being shut down, as the wind levels were unsafe. If the island were to need to be evacuated—what is the capacity for it to do so?
Back in the days of evacuating for Irene last year, Bloomberg faced criticism as the evacuation protocol for Rikers Island was left blank. After the Center for Constitutional Rights issued a statement saying that the lives of prisoners “should not be treated as less valuable than those of other New Yorkers,” this time around the NYCDOC, at least, was better-prepared with statements about the choice to not evacuate the island—as the website of the NYCDOC “Given its elevation, Rikers Island can withstand any storm up to and including a Category 4 hurricane. Rikers Island facilities are NOT in low-lying areas, and therefore like nearby small islands Roosevelt Island and City Island, is not seriously threatened by severe flooding.” They end the statement with “Be assured that NYCDOC staff will remain on Rikers Island and the facility is a fully self-sustaining entity, prepared to operate and care for inmates in an emergency if such an emergency develops.”
An additional two points that raised concern about flooding was the island’s makeup and the atrocious occurrence seen at one prison in particular in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. According to the City of New York’s Department of Correction website, a large portion of the island is built on sanitary landfill, which is supposed to be more susceptible to erosion/flooding. The fears of how inmates would fare during flooding were justified as people could see how some prisoners in New Orleans after Katrina were essentially neglected and left for dead. According to a report on the ACLU website discussing the aftermath Katrina at the Orleans Parish Prison: “as flood waters rose in the OPP buildings, power was lost, and entire buildings were plunged into darkness. Deputies left their posts wholesale, leaving behind prisoners in locked cells, some standing in sewage-tainted water up to their chests…Prisoners went days without food, water and ventilation.” “[This type of treatment] is just not right,” Margaret Shelton, a Queens resident whose daughter was a Prisoner on Rikers Island during the storm, remarked to The Daily Beast, about the treatment of its evacuation plan. She adds, “it’s like they left these people out.”
While the city allegedly “is prepared to care for inmates in an emergency if such an emergency develops,” this statement continues to leave many family members of Prisoners and corrections officers who would be potentially trapped on Rikers dissatisfied. We have yet to see proof that this plan actually exists. The vagueness of the NYCDOC’s plan of evacuation partnered with the atrocities that occurred post-Katrina, continue to beg the question: If Sandy had been worse, what would have become of the prisoners and the personnel trapped in the middle of the East River?