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South Carolina Prisoners Were Left in Cells as Florence Descended. Why Weren’t They Evacuated?

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South Carolina officials are coming under fire for refusing to relocate prisoners in mandatory evacuation zones even as Hurricane Florence barreled down on the state. Prisoners were instead put to work behind bars making sandbags to prepare for the storm’s arrival. We speak with Kymberly Smith, a community organizer with the Party for Socialism and Liberation. She has been protesting South Carolina’s choice not to evacuate prisoners during Hurricane Florence.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, as we continue to look at, well, South Carolina officials also coming under fire for refusing to evacuate thousands of prisoners in mandatory evacuation zones as Hurricane Florence barreled down on the state. This is South Carolina Governor McMaster announcing a mandatory evacuation of the state’s coast.

GOV. HENRY McMASTER: This is a real hurricane that we have coming, and our goal is to protect lives and property. Now, we know that this evacuation order that I’m issuing is going to be inconvenient for some people. It’s going to be inconvenient. But we do not want to risk one South Carolina life in this hurricane.

AMY GOODMAN: Prisoners at MacDougall Correctional Institution in Berkeley County and Ridgeland Correctional Institution in Jasper County were forced to remain in the prisons when Hurricane Florence hit, despite evacuation orders.

Well, for more, we’re joined by another guest in Columbia, South Carolina, Kymberly Smith, community organizer with the Party for Socialism and Liberation. She has been protesting South Carolina’s choice not to evacuate prisoners during the hurricane.

Kymberly, welcome to Democracy Now! Explain what happened.

KYMBERLY SMITH: What’s happening—well, what happened, to begin with, after the Lee Correctional incident in April '15, we've been having ongoing demonstrations to bring light of the—what’s going on and how those incarcerated are treated in Columbia and South Carolina in general. One of the major points I was raising during Hurricane Florence is why wasn’t Governor Henry McMaster or Bryan Stirling, our director of the South Carolina Department of Corrections—why were they ignoring direct orders to evacuate those incarcerated?

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, prisoners in South Carolina were, as you say, not evacuated when Hurricane Florence hit, but they were put to work making sandbags to prepare for the storm’s arrival. The South Carolina Department of Corrections tweeted a photo of the sandbags, writing, quote, “Inmates assigned to MacDougall and Wateree have prepared over 35,000 sand bags.” The department also tweeted, quote, “Agency staff and inmates have prepared 1000 lbs sandbags to help protect the roads and citizens along the coast.” Kymberly, could you talk about that, the kind of work that prisoners were asked to do?

KYMBERLY SMITH: They were asked to fill sandbags, not for their own safety, but to protect the safety of the citizens that aren’t incarcerated. They were using the labor of these individuals to protect the citizens of South Carolina and on those coastal areas. They were doing the work that other people—in our, you know, legislator—other people could do. They weren’t trying to protect themselves. They don’t care about how the prisoners were going to fare during the storm. But they wanted to use their labor to have them make sandbags so that no one else would have to do it.

AMY GOODMAN: And their concerns? You’ve been speaking with people in the prisons about what would happen with the storm. What were the prisoners saying?

KYMBERLY SMITH: A lot of times when there is like a natural disaster at this magnitude and flooding in South Carolina, a lot of times power goes out. So those incarcerated, they are locked in their cells, because in this day and age everything is like—you know, a lot of these places run on electronics, so when the power goes out, they’re trapped in their cells for hours, not knowing when they’re going to get let out. If water goes out, which it normally does during flooding, because people go and buy water—water goes out, they will be forced to drink out of toilets, because they are not supplied with fresh water.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, Kymberly, in North Carolina, prisoners were evacuated. Of course, in South Carolina, they were not. What did the state in South Carolina say? What did they give as justification for not evacuating prisoners?

KYMBERLY SMITH: Thank you. There was no justification. When we tried to speak with Governor McMaster at a press conference that he was having—he was having press conferences all week—we were not allowed inside the press conferences. We were not allowed to speak with him, interact with him at all. They had security there making sure we got nowhere near him. There was no comment. There was no acknowledgment of anything going on with those incarcerated.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Kymberly Smith, we want to thank you for being with us, community organizer with the Party for Socialism and Liberation, protesting South Carolina’s choice not to evacuate prisoners during Hurricane Florence. Let me ask you quickly, in the last 10 seconds we have: Is the danger over? I mean, while the storm leaves, you’ve got this tremendous threat of flooding.

KYMBERLY SMITH: No. We’re still getting—Little Pee Dee and all those coastal areas are still getting water from—getting the flooding from North Carolina, so we’re not out of the woods yet. These people are still trapped in cells with power outages. They don’t have access to fresh water. We’re not out of the woods yet. We won’t know until we can actually get down there and see what’s going on and when I have more contact with those incarcerated.

AMY GOODMAN: Kymberly Smith, thanks so much for being with us, again, a community organizer with the Party for Socialism and Liberation. This is Democracy Now! When we come back, we’re going to talk about American prisons with Shane Bauer, a man who knows. Stay with us.

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