Wednesday, August 31, 2011

All Hazard Preparedness (for Some, Anyway)

Rikers Island circled in blue on evacuation map from NY Times

As Hurricane Irene churned its way up the East Coast last week, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg ordered the evacuation of coastal areas of the city. 300,000 people were ordered out of their homes (although a fair number didn't leave).

In the middle of this unusual situation, someone asked a very interesting question. What about Rikers Island? For those of you who don't watch Law & Order reruns, Rikers is the principal correctional facility for New York City. It currently houses about 12,000 prisoners. As the name suggests, it's on an island, and it's smack dab in the middle of the zone that was evacuated ahead of the hurricane.

But Rikers Island was not evacuated for Irene. We can argue about whether it -- or anywhere else in New York City -- really needed to be. But it turns out that Rikers has no evacuation plan. Let me reiterate that, because it really is striking. There is no plan in place to evacuate Rikers Island under any circumstance. Not a hurricane, tornado, flood, fire, earthquake, riot or anything else. If someone brings a bomb into the visitor's room and they can't diffuse it, too bad. If the whole island catches fire, oh, well.

I know that concern about the welfare of criminals is not a politically popular stance, and maybe that's why they haven't figured this out. But there are some other things to consider. First of all, Rikers houses people temporarily awaiting transfer to other facilities, those serving less than a year in jail and those awaiting trial who cannot make bail or are being held without bail. This is not, overall, the place you find the most hardened criminals of New York. What's more, a sizable number of them have never been convicted of a crime. They are accused and poor, but presumed innocent.

What's more, in order to maintain the prisoners at Rikers, there is a sizable staff of guards, cleaning crew, cooks, medical personnel and others who make the place run. Those people aren't even accused of crimes. They're just doing their jobs. And as long as there are prisoners on Rikers Island, they have to be there.

The public school where I was Principal has not one but two different evacuation locations plus a variety of plans based on the hazard. We have to practice evacuating the building, as does every school in the country. If your business doesn't know how to evacuate its personnel and its customers in the event of a disaster, I'd call that negligent. But a facility with about 20,000 people in it, all told, has no plan.

I'm sure evacuating Rikers would be a nightmare. It is possible that even if they had a plan, implementing it for Irene would not have been worth it. Fine. But not having a plan at all isn't just stupid, it's criminal. I don't know which is more horrifying -- that there is no plan, or that nobody thought it was a problem until now.


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Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
is a clinical social worker, former school Principal and a Crisis Consultant for schools and community organizations. You can learn more about her at
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