As the State of Florida orders more than five million people across Florida to evacuate, it is also coordinating thousands of prisoners to be relocated into less dangerous facilities. While this sounds better than being left in a cell during floods and destruction, cramming people into already overcrowded prisons may result in more danger for our incarcerated family members, friends and neighbors.
There are around 100,000 prisoners in Florida, third highest only to Texas and California, the vast majority of which are in the State’s system. Our State simply cannot justify such an extreme risk to the health and safety of prisoners that may come with this storm. The denial of adequate food, water, electricity and other supplies could be considered cruel and unusual punishment, a violation of the U.S. Constitution’s Eighth Amendment.
While a mass release of prisoners may sound impossible to those unfamiliar with the prison system, there are actually several options for releasing prisoners which serve little-to-no risk to those of us on the outside.
For example, aging prisoners, prisoner with severe health conditions, and prisoners who have already served decades behind bars–longer than many countries in the world even allow people to be in prison (as there is evidence that lengthy sentences do not actually increase the odds for successful rehabilitation.)
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: