Ahead of Hurricane Florence pummeling the Carolinas today (September 14), government officials placed up to 1.7 million people under mandatory evacuation orders, amid warnings of catastrophic floods along the southeastern coast. On Wednesday (September 12), South Carolina Governor Henry MacMaster urged residents to flee the storm, saying, “We’re not going to gamble with the lives of the people of South Carolina. Not a one.”

But thousands of incarcerated people were never given the chance to evacuate. Now they are bracing for the worst.

The South Carolina Department of Corrections (SDCS) chose not evacuate several prison facilities located in mandatory evacuation zones. The MacDougall Correctional Institution, situated just a few miles from the Charleston coast, declined to evacuate 651 people. The Al Cannon Detention Center decided to keep 1,184 people in a flood area. In Berkeley county—where government officials warned residents about storm surges—another detention center did not allow incarcerated people to flee the storm. The Palmer Pre-Release Center, a low-security facility in Florence, announced it would evacuate people, despite it not being in an evacuation zone. 

In South Carolina, African Americans make up more than half (66 percent) of the prison population, according to SCDC data.

“Right now, we’re not in the process of moving inmates,” Dexter Lee, a SCDC spokesperson told The State at a press conference on Tuesday (September 11). “In the past, it’s been safer to leave them there.”

McMaster agreed that it would be better not to move people from detention facilities, including the one at MacDougall. “The analysis so far that it’s toward the edge of one of the evacuation zones, and because of its placement and because of the type of buildings and a lot of other considerations, it’s safer to stay on campus that it is try to get off,” he told the press on Wednesday. “That is the safest place for those people to be at this time.”

Over the weekend, the SCDC shared images on Twitter of incarcerated people creating more than 35,000 sandbags in preparation for anticipated flooding. 

Hurricane Florence, which has downgraded to a Category 1 storm, made landfall this morning on North Carolina’s coast with winds of up to 90 mph, according to the National Hurricane Center. Torrential rain, flooding and “life-threatening” storm surges are expected to continue throughout the Carolinas. So far, more than 600,000 residents have reportedly lost power and hundreds have been rescued from flooded houses, The Washington Post reports.

Prison rights activists condemned the decision to leave incarcerated people in the path of the deadly storm. Over the week, The Campaign to Fight Toxic Prisons called for a Hurricane Florence Phone Zap to pressure government officials to evacuate incarcerated people and ensure that they are provided a stockpile of water and food in every facility. And several activists staged demonstrations outside state offices in Columbus, South Carolina.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of South Carolina also implored the governor to ensure the safety of incarcerated people. “This storm is slated to be one of the worst we have ever seen,” Shaundra Y. Scott, executive director of the ACLU of South Carolina, said in a statement released yesterday. “If Governor McMaster truly does not want to ‘gamble with the lives of the people of South Carolina,’ he needs to make sure that the prison system is up to par, or evacuate the inmates just as he has ordered the rest of us to do.”