Compassion Reporting on poverty fighting and criminal justice

Prisoners stayed put during Florence

Compassion | Critics claim South Carolina and Virginia put inmates’ lives at risk amid mandatory hurricane evacuations
by Rob Holmes
Posted 9/19/18, 03:59 pm

Officials in two states are facing backlash for making inmates shelter in place during mandatory evacuations ahead of Hurricane Florence’s landfall last week.

Though South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster ordered his state’s coastal counties to evacuate last Tuesday, hundreds of prisoners were left behind at Ridgeland Correctional Institution and MacDougall Correctional Institution, both within the original evacuation zone. Jasper County, where Ridgeland sits, had its evacuation order lifted the same day it was issued. But 651 inmates of MacDougall, a medium-security facility in Berkeley County, remained. Another facility, Lieber Correctional Institution in Ridgeville, S.C., 30 miles inland from Charleston and 10 miles from MacDougall, though outside the mandatory evacuation zone, also decided to shelter its 1,100 inmates in place. The prison is home to the state’s male death row inmates.

Activists heaped criticism on the Republican governor’s administration for leaving prisoners at risk after he said during a Sept. 11 press conference, “We’re not going to gamble with the lives of the people of South Carolina. Not a one.”

Protesters gathered last week outside the South Carolina State House to demand the evacuation of prisoners. “Leaving incarcerated people trapped in prisons or jails in the path of a hurricane can result in harm or death, and is completely inexcusable,” the American Civil Liberties Union tweeted.

But amid constantly shifting winds and hurricane models, government officials maintained keeping the prisoners in place was safest.

“Right now, we’re not in the process of moving inmates,” South Carolina Department of Corrections spokesman Dexter Lee told The State in an interview about the Ridgeland prisoners before the evacuation order was lifted. “In the past, it’s been safer to leave them there.”

McMaster also stood his ground, saying during a briefing last Wednesday that the safest place for the prisoners was at MacDougall. “The analysis so far is that it’s toward the edge of one of the evacuation zones, and because of its placement and because of the types of buildings and a lot of other considerations, it’s safer to stay on campus than it is to try to get off,” he said. “That is the safest place for those people to be at this time.”

Critics argued the cost and logistics of moving high-security inmates to other facilities may have motivated officials to keep them in place.

Just miles from the coast, the Charleston County jail also retained its thousand-plus inmates—some not yet convicted—in a Federal Emergency Management Agency–classified flood zone. Officials at the Sheriff Al Cannon Detention Center said the facility was strong enough to withstand the storm and had generators and medical teams on site. The evacuation order for the county was lifted Saturday after Florence came ashore approximately 175 miles to the north.

In contrast to South Carolina, North Carolina, which received the brunt of Florence, started moving prisoners out of flood zones days before the storm.

But Virginia, like South Carolina, is taking heat for not evacuating inmates: Three Virginia sheriffs were named in a lawsuit filed last Wednesday for deciding to keep inmates in prisons in Norfolk, Chesapeake, and Portsmouth—all under mandatory evacuation and prone to coastal flooding. Norfolk Sheriff Joe Baron, Chesapeake Sheriff Jim O’Sullivan, and Portsmouth Sheriff Michael Moore kept nearly 2,500 inmates in place after Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat, issued an evacuation order for all residents in the same zone.

“Time and again there have been prison officials who believed that they had the manpower, infrastructure, and everything else they needed to shelter in place, and then they were proven wrong, and they had to scramble to evacuate those facilities as they plunged into chaos,” Eric Balaban, senior staff counsel of the ACLU’s National Prison Project, told The New York Times.

Critics of South Carolina’s decisions about prisoners during Florence have drawn comparisons to the Orleans Parish Prison in Louisiana during Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Despite a mandatory evacuation order for New Orleans, prison officials decided to leave the prisoners in place, and then later had to evacuate them by boat when the prison flooded, a process witnesses said took days and left some prisoners in chest-deep water without access to food or water.

“Prisoners absolutely have the same rights as others,” said Derek Walden, a Charleston County resident who has worked for 16 years in local prison ministry. “They don’t abrogate the right to life while in prison.”

An elder at East Cooper Baptist Church in coastal Mount Pleasant, S.C., Walden has worked both face-to-face and in correspondence with inmates at Lieber prison. He told me refusing to move prisoners alongside free citizens in an evacuation draws a dangerous “artificial line” of classification: “From a Christian perspective, we are all prisoners until Christ frees us from sin. We have a duty to help people—whether the old or prisoners—at such a time, regardless of what they cost or contribute to society.”

Associated Press/Photo by Andrew DeMillo Associated Press/Photo by Andrew DeMillo Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson (center) speaks about Medicaid work requirements at the State Capitol in Little Rock, Ark., on Sept. 12.

Working out of poverty

Arkansas has dropped 4,353 people who did not meet work requirements from its Medicaid plan, state officials announced Sept. 12. They said another 5,000 people on the program could lose coverage if they don’t meet requirements by the end of the month. But three months into the program, the majority of the 62,000 people under the requirement have met the standards or were exempt.

“Compassion and common sense says that this is a good program for those who are trying to move up the economic ladder and better themselves,” said Gov. Asa Hutchinson, a Republican.

In January, President Donald Trump said states could impose work requirements on Medicaid recipients. In April, he signed an executive order, “Reducing Poverty in America by Promoting Opportunity and Economic Mobility”—that stated “the Federal Government’s role is to clear paths to self-sufficiency, reserving public assistance programs for those who are truly in need.”

But some states have run into problems implementing work requirements. Kentucky tried to establish work requirements in July. Under the policy, similar to Arkansas’ plan, Medicaid recipients would be required to complete 80 hours of work, job training, volunteering, or education per month or prove they qualify for an exception. Exceptions included parents with children at home, the disabled, those already working, and those in school full time. Drug addiction treatment could also qualify.

A federal district judge blocked Kentucky’s plan days before it took effect. He said state officials had not considered the estimated 95,000 who would lose coverage with Kentucky work requirements.

But advocates argue the requirements are only necessary because the Affordable Care Act expanded Medicaid to able-bodied, nonpregnant, nonelderly, nondisabled people, and the requirements send an important message to those recipients.

“At its core, this is a debate over the purpose of the social safety net,” wrote American Enterprise Institute scholar Michael R. Strain in an editorial for Bloomberg. “Among healthy, working-age adults who aren’t the primary caregiver for a dependent, public policy should be designed to combat idleness, to increase community attachment, and to increase work rates. Medicaid work requirements aren’t punitive. Instead, they reflect proper social expectations. They send a message that if you can contribute to society, then you should. That message matters.”

As of last Friday, the federal government has approved work requirements for Medicaid recipients in Arkansas, Indiana, Kentucky, and New Hampshire, while eight other states have applied for similar waivers, according to The New York Times. —Charissa Crotts

Associated Press/Photo by Jae C. Hong Associated Press/Photo by Jae C. Hong A homeless man sleeps on an overpass in Los Angeles.

Street sleeping

A federal appeals court this month ruled that prosecuting homeless people for sleeping on public property was unconstitutional. The decision overturned a Boise, Idaho, law forbidding people from camping or sleeping on public property, and now applies to the entire jurisdiction of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which includes California, Washington, and Arizona.

In 2009, six homeless people convicted under Boise’s Camping and Disorderly Conduct Ordinances filed a lawsuit challenging the law. After countless motions, amendments, and withdrawals, Boise officials in 2014 stopped ticketing homeless individuals on the streets when the city’s homeless shelters were full.

But this did not satisfy the plaintiffs, who argued the solution still infringed upon their constitutional rights. A nonprofit organization operates two of Boise’s shelters, requiring residents to participate in their Christian recovery program to stay long term. One plaintiff declined and had to leave the shelter after the 17-day limit.

A three-judge panel on Sept. 4 ruled that forcing homeless individuals to join the Christian program if the other shelters were full violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

“The panel held that, as long as there is no option of sleeping indoors, the government cannot criminalize indigent, homeless people for sleeping outdoors, on public property, on the false premise they had a choice in the matter,” Judge Marsha Berzon wrote in the opinion.

As homelessness grows in the United States, laws restricting homeless people from sleeping on public property are also multiplying.

Andrew Bales runs Union Rescue Mission, a Christian homeless shelter in Los Angeles. He acknowledged laws prohibiting sleeping on public property protect people with homes or businesses in the area, but questioned whether that was a Christlike response.

“There is no answer to public camping without shelters and services,” he pointed out. “I would encourage Christians to lead with the compassion of Christ, learn as much as you can, and speak truth in love. Follow the book of James’ advice to put your faith in action by feeding and clothing and sheltering your neighbor.” —C.C.

Vietnam ministry wins top honors in 2018 Hope Awards

The overall winner of WORLD’s 2018 Hope Awards for Effective Compassion is the Aquila Rehab Center in Hanoi, Vietnam, the first international ministry to capture the top honor. Aquila received 35 percent of the votes cast by WORLD readers and earns the $10,000 grand prize, which WORLD editor-in-chief Marvin Olasky noted “will go a long way in Vietnam.” All of the ministries considered were worthy, and regional winners receive $2,000 each, plus lots of publicity and increased credibility that they can use in their own areas to multiply those dollars.

To nominate a worthy ministry for the 2019 Hope Awards, email Charissa Crotts and let her know about a Christian poverty-fighting group in your area that offers challenging, personal, and spiritual help and does not depend on government financing. Please include a brief description of why it impresses you and its address and website. —Mickey McLean

Rob Holmes

Rob is a graduate of the WORLD Journalism Institute’s mid-career course. Follow Rob on Twitter @SouthernFlyer.

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