Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Assuming the Worst: How the Rikers Island Hurricane Irene Story Went From Innuendo to Absurdity

You can't say it wasn't a provocative headline: "Locked Up and Left Behind: Hurricane Irene and the Prisoners on New York’s Rikers Island." The story, by Jean Casella and James Ridgeway, co-editors of Solitary Watch, went up on Friday, and was also posted on Mother Jones on Saturday.

It took off quickly. New York Magazine conjured up the possibility of "letting prisoners wallow in half-flooded cinder-block cell buildings." TIME reported that "Bloomberg has been frequently echoing his call for people to get away from Hurricane Irene's path as soon as possible. But if you find yourself among the 12,000 incarcerated inmates at Riker's Island, you'll be waiting the storm out, despite the fact its 400 acres are built on landfill." The irreplaceable Center for Constitutional Rights issued a statement Saturday saying it was "extremely concerned" that there were no plans to evacuate the island for the hurricane, and that the Mayor "evacuated hundreds of thousands of people from vulnerable neighborhoods in low-lying areas just like Rikers Island yet seems prepared to leave the roughly 12,000 men and women jailed there to their fate."

Days later, most (though not all) of the contentions in the original article have been debunked. What's left is an embarrassing tale of bloggers, reporters, tweeters and advocates making broad statements based on limited information, assuming the worst and hurting their own credibility for taking on the real injustice next time.


At Mayor Bloomberg's press conference on Friday afternoon, a reporter asked, "Rikers Island - is there any evacuation for that?" The mayor replied, "We are not evacuating Rikers Island," and moved on to answering another part of the question. Bloomberg was terse (40:10 in the video) -- just as he was with many of the questions in the press conference.

In their article, Casella and Ridgeway charged that "in response to a reporter's question, the mayor stated in no uncertain terms (and with a hint of annoyance) that one group of New Yorkers on vulnerable ground will be staying put." And then without much further information, they plowed ahead and started the saga:
New York City is surrounded by small islands and barrier beaches, and a glance at the city's evacuation map reveals all of them to be in Zone A (already under a mandatory evacuation order) or Zone B–all, that is, save one. Rikers Island, which lies in the waters between Queens and the Bronx, is not highlighted at all, meaning it is not to be evacuated under any circumstances.

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.
The city's flood evacuation map indeed showed Rikers not to be in flood zones A, B or C. It seemed surprising, certainly, and a ripe subject for further inquiry. But many chose to jump beyond inquiry and assume the worst: that Rikers inmates were being left behind to risk disaster.

The Mayor's Office tried to put the matter to rest. A spokeswoman emailed reporters:
We carefully reviewed Rikers Island, as we have done with the entire city, and no section of Rikers Island facilities are in Zone A.

Rikers Island facilies are not in low-lying areas, it's not a coastal location and, like nearby small islands Roosevelt Island and City Island, it does not need to be evacuated. We focused on the areas where real dangers exist.

A full Corrections Department staff will remain on Rikers Island and the facility is a fully self-sustaining entity, prepared to operate and care for inmates in extended emergency conditions."
Mayor Bloomberg made similar statements in response to a question at a press conference on Saturday. The story had lost most of its legs.

Yet it kept running. On Monday's Democracy Now!, Amy Goodman noted that "even though Hurricane Irene prompted a series of extraordinary measures in New York City ... officials did not take any steps to evacuate some 12,000 prisoners held in the city jail on Rikers Island." Casella and Ridgeway added updates to their original story, but rather than admitting error, simply re-emphasized the parts of the story that hadn't been debunked.

Many of the propagators of the story had mentioned the landfill angle -- that Rikers was particularly vulnerable because landfills, in the words of Casella and Ridgeway, are "generally thought to be more vulnerable to natural disasters." If the city was saying Rikers was above Zone A, maybe the island was still at risk because it is a landfill.

That notion was unceremoniously trounced on Monday by none other than James Ridgeway himself. In response to Amy Goodman's broad introduction, Ridgeway chose to start here:
Well, in the first place, Amy, I don’t really see what whether it’s built on landfill or not has to do with this.
Ouch. Not only did he not admit he was the one who had propagated the landfill argument, he admonished Goodman for bringing it up.


Is the whole island indeed high enough to be above not just Zone A, but zones B and C, as the map shows? Almost, but not quite. When I called the Mayor's press office on Monday, they directed me to the Department of Corrections. The DOC spokeswoman, Sharman Stein, said in an email that the vast majority of the island is higher, in no flood zone. Some outer parts of the island, including one jail, are in Zone C, which means areas that could be flooded in a category 3 or 4 hurricane. "The first floor of that one facility may be vulnerable to flooding and in that case, those inmates would be relocated from the first floor to higher floors in the jail or moved temporarily to other facilities on Rikers Island," says Stein.

(For the record, Stein adds that there were no storm-related incidents. Any damage was confined to trees and possibly trailers).

It's not clear why the city's map doesn't show part of Rikers as being in Zone C, and that merits follow-up. It doesn't seem like the worst offense, though.


There is one area of the saga where the critics have a grievance that remains unresolved. Casella and Ridgeway pointed to a NYT City Room Q&A (with answers provided by Times staff, un-signed) which said:
According to the city’s Department of Correction, no hypothetical evacuation plan for the roughly 12,000 inmates that the facility may house on a given day even exists. Contingencies do exist for smaller-scale relocations from one facility to another.
These words were cited over and over again in the past several days; no one had any other information. This hadn't been the original focus of the critics, but it was becoming it, and rightly so. Was the Times getting this right?

This was as specific as Stein would go:
The DOC maintains plans and periodically updates its plans to respond to a variety of disasters. ... Any emergency impacting the whole of Rikers Island would also be affecting the region. It is the position of this administration that the personal safety of its staff and the inmate population be preserved and as such, evacuation to the extent it may be warranted would occur. The DOC response to a disaster of this magnitude would be integrated of course, into a city or region-wide strategy.
It's not a satisfying answer, though it's better than what we had before. Certainly it merits follow-up from bigger fish than myself.

Remember that there is no evacuation plan, at least not one publicized, for the entire island of Manhattan. It would be rather hard to do. Rikers is a different matter; if a disaster were to strike that impacted the entire island, but not the rest of the region, there ought to be a plan for that. And DOC's not saying there is one.

Evacuating all of New York City quickly is impossible. In such a case, lots of people, be it at Rikers or anywhere, might be left behind. Public officials understandably don't want to discuss such scenarios publicly. Pressing them to make claims that everyone will get out alive can be unhelpful.

But the matter of a disaster that struck Rikers specifically, beyond a single jail but not beyond the island, needs to be addressed more directly by DOC. This saga has illuminated that. We don't know the whole story yet, and we need to.


Throwing a bunch of darts at a board and seeing what sticks is not a good practice for journalists or advocates. Yet that's what happened here. Many darts were thrown (publicly), most fell, and one is sticking with question marks.

The city -- in this case the Mayor's Office and the Department of Corrections -- should be more transparent than they are. But you can't erase the reality that these are overworked civil servants, busy responding to an unusual weekend storm.

The practice of throwing a question at them and then assuming the worst when they don't get back to you within 24 hours is not a fair one. That's not what transparency is. You could leave a message with the White House asking if Obama is Muslim, and then when your call isn't returned, you could post "White House Refuses to Deny Rumors That President is Muslim!" But you don't do that.

If a deputy mayor of a city of more than 8 million people responds to your tweets about Rikers with a pretty good answer for 140 characters, but doesn't fully answer all of your question, you can still complain if you want. But that's not news.

The critics don't come out of this well. The usually-sharp Colorlines objected that "Major publications in New York city avoided the story." London's Daily Mail said: "The city's official evacuation map and you'll see that pretty much every island and coastal zone is classified as either a Zone A, B, or C. ... While Irene may give New York a heavy soaking, the possibility of flooded prison cells remain, reports." An Indymedia post by Steven Argue declared: "Prisoners abandoned to die."

Some of the responsibility goes to the original storymakers, though certainly a lot of this is a lesson in how a wrong story goes wildly wrong after it starts. It was like a game of telephone.


I asked Casella and Ridgeway what criteria evacuation decisions should be based on, if Rikers being above zone A wasn't good enough. Casella says by email:
We are not geologists or emergency planners. We are journalists, and reported what seemed to us some notable facts: first, that Rikers is the only small island that is not in ANY evacuation zone, second, that there is NO evacuation plan for the island, third, that there is no transparency regarding these matters on the part of city government, which initially dismissed the question without any kind of explanation.
But they had gone so much further. They insinuated the similarity to prisoners left behind during Katrina. That story was an important lesson, and one that hasn't been learned in all parts of the country. But it wasn't relevant here.

Most importantly, they started the thrust of the story, that inmates on Rikers were being "left behind" for this storm, and that that put them in danger. They weren't in danger. There are other injustices out there -- right at Rikers Island, in fact, not to mention in many other places.

This saga proved mostly a distraction, one that could have been avoided if everyone had not assumed the worst. Next time.

Update 9/2: On the same day that I posted this, Casella and Ridgeway posted a follow-up story with similar response from the DOC as I got.


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