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Ear to the Ground

No High Ground for New York’s Inmates

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Posted on Aug 27, 2011
Flickr / activefree (CC-BY)

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg said Friday that the approximately 12,000 prisoners being held on low-lying Rikers Island will not be evacuated to escape Hurricane Irene.

The city took a number of extreme measures to protect its law-abiding residents: The massive public transit system was shut down at noon Saturday and some 250,000 people were evacuated from low-lying areas. But seemingly little thought was put into what to do with the island of inmates and those who guard them, not just now in the face of Hurricane Irene, but for any given day. And while the storm is expected to lose steam by the time it hits land on Sunday, Bloomberg’s attitude toward jail inmates bears an eerie resemblance to the way inmates were abandoned in New Orleans in 2005 in the face of Hurricane Katrina. —BF

Mother Jones:

According to the New York City Department of Correction’s website, more than three-quarters of Rikers Island’s 400 acres are built on landfill–which is generally thought to be more vulnerable to natural disasters. Its 10 jails have a capacity of close to 17,000 inmates, and normally house at least 12,000, including juveniles and large numbers of prisoners with mental illness—not to mention pretrial detainees who have yet to be convicted of any crime. There are also hundreds of corrections officers at work on the island.

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By markpkessinger, August 29, 2011 at 3:37 pm Link to this comment

@Emmanuel Goldstein

You write:

The Bloomberg administration may not have sought to keep the inmates there as they forced hundreds of thousands of free men to flee, but their failure to have any contingency options for the evacuation of Rikers Island represents a clear indifference to the plight of those we lock up.

Evacuation contingency plans are based upon risk assessments, which, when it comes to weather events, are in turn based mostly on history.  Let us stipulate that it is impossible to plan for every theoretical natural disaster that might ever occur.  Generally speaking we cannot foresee an event that has not happened as yet, and so we typically don’t plan for those events.  As I pointed out in my other message, Rikers Island has an average elevation of about 26’ above sea level, with parts of it as high as 60’.  I defy anyone to identify a single natural disaster in the 400+ year history of this great city that would have required evacuation of residents living at 26’ and above.  Not even the waters from the infamous 1938 hurricane would have seriously impacted it (although some lower lying areas of the island may have experienced some flooding).  And as for the winds a hurricane brings, the buildings at Rikers are probably some of the best suited in the city to withstand them.  In fact, an event of the magnitude that would represent substantial risk to the inmates at Rikers Island would have to be an event so massive as to require the evacuation of virtually the entire city.  And I’ve got news for you:  there is no plan for that either.  Why?  Because there has never been an event that required that in our history.  Is it theoretically possible that there someday could be such an event?  Of course.  But not having a contingency plan for an event that is exceedingly unlikely does not constitute “indifference to the plight of those we lock up” nor to anyone else.  It is totally unreasonable to expect such a plan to be in place.

Mayor Bloomberg (of whom I am no great fan, btw) was responding to a question in the midst of an unfolding weather event.  It was in the context of that weather event, and the projected risks appurtenant to it, that he was responding.  In the context of Irene, there WAS NO RISK to the inmates at Rikers, and hence there WAS NO PLAN to evacuate them.  To suggest that Mayor Bloomberg should have addressed himself in the midst of this press conference to any and every conceivable scenario is simply ridiculous on its face.

This entire kerfuffle has been an example of conjured outrage in search of justification.  After the story ran, here and elsewhere, a few of us began pointing out that there really wasn’t any significant risk to the inmates at Rikers due to its elevation.  Then the outrage shifted to claims that Rikers is somehow unstable because parts of it were built on fill, not bedrock. And some of us then pointed out that there are many very pricey residential neighborhoods and business areas in the city that are also built on fill (for example, Battery Park City and everything east of Water Street in lower Manhattan), and stability does not seem to be a major issue there.  So when that charge failed as well, the argument shifted to the alleged “callous indifference” of Mayor Bloomberg as evidenced by a lack of a total evacuation plan for Rikers.

Face it, Mr. Ridgeway (whose work I generally admire) jumped the gun on this one, and so did all those who took his article at face value.

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By Emmanuel Goldstein, August 29, 2011 at 8:35 am Link to this comment

The Bloomberg administration may not have sought to keep the inmates there as
they forced hundreds of thousands of free men to flee, but their failure to have any
contingency options for the evacuation of Rikers Island represents a clear
indifference to the plight of those we lock up. James Ridgeway was discussing this
serious blight on the Mayor’s record on Democracy Now! is the link:

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By markpkessinger, August 28, 2011 at 3:53 pm Link to this comment

@Jim Yell

So is the whole of the very tony Battery Park City “built on landfill,” as is everything east of Water Street in lower Manhattan.  It does not make it inherently unstable.

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By Jim Yell, August 28, 2011 at 7:42 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

The point is not the elevation of Rikers Island the point is it is built largely on rubble and is there for not stable. If the foundations are not set on bedrock it could in extreme case become just so much loose dirt and rock which is no match for strong currents.

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PatrickHenry's avatar

By PatrickHenry, August 28, 2011 at 6:36 am Link to this comment

These guys should be out filling sandbags, a la chain gang.

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By markpkessinger, August 27, 2011 at 11:21 pm Link to this comment

If there were any substance to what is being alleged here, I would be the first to be outraged by it.  But it is sensationalist bullshit.  Rikers Island has an average elevation of 26 feet (or about 8 meters) above sea level. (Source:  U.S. Department of the Interior, U.S. Geological Survey. As such, it is perfectly appropriate that it is not included in evacuation “Zone A.” In fact, there are plenty of residential neighborhoods that sit at a lower elevation and also border a waterway in NYC that have not been evacuated (Long Island City, to name but one).

In addition, the complex has many buildings that are at least 10 stories tall. The projected storm surge is 4’ to 8’, and thus is not projected to present any significant risk to the Rikers prisoners.

Here is a topographical map as well.

It’s easy to fall for this kind of thing, but it pays to do your own homework.

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By King Cobra, August 27, 2011 at 5:13 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I just checked the topographical data for Rikers and
the National Hurricane Center’s storm surge risk
profile, and it seems that in the worst-case scenario
(if NYC took a direct hit from a category 3
hurricane), parts of Rikers island would flood, but
the vast majority of structures would not be at risk.
The bulk of the island is about 25? above sea level,
with the eastern part reaching heights of >60?. In a
direct hit under a category 3 storm, the island would
be at risk of 22?-24? surges. While that’s not a
great safety buffer, both the track of the storm
taking it directly over the east river, and the
strength of the storm maintaining cat. 3 winds that
far up the coast are highly unlikely.

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By Jim Yell, August 27, 2011 at 12:42 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

When we lock up people even for good reason, we as a country in theory have become responsible for their safety, not to mention the safety of the corrections personnel. Maybe Bloomberg is counting on the far right Supreme Court to protect New York from the lawsuits in wrongful death if the prison shouldn’t prove able to protect the inmates from the storm?

I know there are some reprehensible people locked up, but we should all know there are many who by “the grace of God aren’t any one of us”. His attitude is so strong in people of the right that they seem to have no humanity in them.

We will all have to bear the shame if there is a major disaster from the neglect.

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