Opinion: Prison evacuations may not be enough
There are several ways a mass release of prisoners could realistically occur. The Department of Corrections could expedite the review of all prisoners eligible for parole, for example, or the Governor’s cabinet can use its discretion to grant the commutation of a prison sentence, which it legally has the ability to do at any time, for any reason.
State law says that a person must have completed at least one third of the sentence imposed, or, if serving a minimum mandatory sentence, have completed at least one half of the sentence. If the State leads the way on this, County and Federal facilities could follow.
In the absence of preparations beyond relocation to other crowded prisons, Florida risks seeing what Texas has already seen with Harvey in recent weeks: unnecessary suffering (including people forced to drink from their toilets) and even unintended death sentences.
In a statement on Saturday, Gov. Scott sounded dire warnings about the storm, urging residents in evacuation zones to leave their homes immediately. At a news conference in Sarasota, he said, “Once the storm starts, law enforcement cannot save you.”
But these agencies just may be able to save people from deadly conditions inside prisons. Being that this weekend is the anniversary of the famous Attica uprising of 1971 in New York, and one year from a series of prison protests that rocked Florida prisons across the state, perhaps its a most appropriate time to be thinking about the ones too often forgotten.
Releasing prisoners following the storm, in a safe and thoughtful way, could allow them to help their families, assist in relief efforts and become assets rather than be liabilities, not to mention the possible subject of human rights lawsuits for years to come.
At the press conference on Saturday Governor Scott warned Floridians that this was “their last chance to make a good decision.” Hopefully he will heed his own advice.
For more background on Clemency and Commutation:
Panagioti Tsolkas is a founder and coordinator of the Campaign to Fight Toxic Prisons, which monitors environmental health impacts on prisoners and communities impacted by prisons.