When Hurricane Ian struck Florida, the closing of courts closed left many stuck in jail facilities in a mandatory evacuation zone. Clients described poor sanitary conditions and rationing of water in the downtown Ft. Myers jail and claimed that the jail experienced flooding, according to USA Today. Advocates say there has long been a need for better emergency planning for jails and prisons ahead of disasters. "We need to proactively change these systems. It's literally a matter of life and death," said Jenipher Jones of the National Lawyers Guild's Mass Incarceration Committee. As high winds and rising waters knock out electricity and running water, people in jails and prisons can be left without clean drinking water, adequate food, medication, functioning toilets, and air conditioning for days after a storm, said Alex Smith of Fight Toxic Prisons, an organization that campaigned for evacuations, stockpiling and mass releases ahead of Hurricane Ian. "All of these things can increase the spread of disease and can increase people succumbing to pre-existing conditions," he said. "There are also many elderly people who are incarcerated. It's often disabled people, often poor people, often people of color who are ... more likely to see increased health risks, due to lack of medical care."
There is no national mandate to develop emergency plans, leaving decisions about preparation and evacuation to corrections departments, sheriff's offices, and other local officials. There are few legal standards to hold those running prisons and jails responsible when things go wrong, said Wanda Bertram of the Prison Policy Initiative. Part of the problem with regulating disaster preparedness is that the prison system is not centralized, said Corene Kendrick of the American Civil Liberties Union National Prison Project. Federal and state governments could step in by tying funding to emergency response plans that include evacuation protocols, Kendrick said. She suggested local plans that allow jails to release people who are awaiting trial until the disaster passes. As climate changes brings worse natural disasters, officials need to rethink where jails and prisons are located, Kendrick said, noting that prisons have been built near hazardous waste sites and areas at high risk for flooding. Jones of the National Lawyers Guild suggested that the U.S. adhere to international human rights standards concerning the treatment of prisoners, known as the Mandela rules, that "would immediately elevate the standards and the conditions of prisons.