It’s been over a month since Hurricane Irene hit New York City. Most residents have all but forgotten the scrambling for drinking water and candles, the mandatory evacuation warnings, the shut down of all public transportation, and the boarded-up windows in the prelude to what some thought would be a catastrophic storm.
But two mothers in the Bronx have not forgotten Irene. For them, the storm revealed a heartbreaking truth: in the event of a serious natural disaster the city would not protect their sons, detainees on Rikers Island.
Hurricane Irene was expected to hit New York early in the morning on Sunday, Aug. 29. Mayor Michael Bloomberg called for the unprecedented mandatory evacuation of nearly 370,000 people living in low-lying areas of the city. A total of 91 evacuation centers with 70,000 cots were set up for evacuees. Of those evacuation centers, 65 made space for evacuated pets. Airports were shut down, including La Guardia, whose runways are a mere 250 feet from Rikers Island. Airport employees were told to go home for their own safety.
But no one made plans to evacuate Rikers. When asked about an evacuation plan for Rikers — which lies in the middle of evacuation zones, is 75 percent landfill, and at some points sits just 20 feet above sea level — Bloomberg said, “There is no reason to evacuate Rikers Island.”
The families of inmates on Rikers listened to Bloomberg’s statement in shock. “I got a call from my sister-in-law on Saturday,” said Maria Mojica of Castle Hill, whose 19-year-old son Jason Mojica is awaiting trial on charges of theft. “She said turn on the news. The mayor just said they are leaving the kids on the island.”
As Mojica watched the press conference, she began to panic. “I had all these questions,” she said. “Is he safe? Can he call? Does he know there’s a hurricane coming?” She couldn’t sleep that night and, unlike every other day since her son has been at Rikers, he didn’t call.
Lisa Ortega of Hunts Point was also anxiously watching the news when she heard the mayor say Rikers Island would not be evacuated. Her son, Kendall “KD” Davis is awaiting trial on weapon possession charges. The then 16-year-old, who spent his 17th birthday on Rikers, suffers from anxiety and was also not allowed to use the phones.
“My stomach was in knots the entire night,” Ortega said. “I knew my baby was in there suffering and unable to call me. I just wanted to hear his voice and know he was okay.”
Ortega frantically called the jail throughout the day, trying to talk to anyone who could tell her what was going on. At one point, she said she finally reached a correctional officer who simply said, “We good here,” and hung up the phone.
A month later during an hour-long jail visit, Jason Mojica would talk about what happened at Rikers that night. Inside the jail on the Saturday before the storm, inmates began to hear news of Irene.
Mojica’s first concern was his mother and siblings. The hardened teenager’s face took on an expression of boyish concern when he remembered that night. “They wouldn’t let us use the phones,” Mojica said. “I was so worried about my mom. I didn’t know if she was being evacuated, or if my little brothers and sisters were safe.”
Mojica helped to raise his siblings while his mother and father worked. He took them to school and picked them up every day. Mojica’s father was visiting Puerto Rico when Irene hit New York, making Mojica even more concerned for the safety of his family.
Kendell (KD) Davis told his mother in a phone call that at 5 p.m., correctional officers entered the part of the jail where he was being held and told him that he wouldn’t be moved and couldn’t make any phone calls.
“It was complete chaos,” Davis told his mother. “No one knew what was happening and whether their families were safe.” He also claims that officers were telling the inmates that if the storm got really bad they would evacuate the island and leave the inmates to fend for themselves.
Davis was so anxious that he couldn’t sleep. It wasn’t until he heard his mother’s voice on Monday that he was able to relax.
Mojica was out in the Sprungs, white canvas tents outside of the jail facilities, when he heard news of the storm. The Sprungs sit approximately 100 feet from the shore of the island. Mojica and the men in his tent were moved to indoor facilities where they would stay for the night. “They came Saturday afternoon and told us that we had to evacuate,” he said. “They said there was no room in the main facilities so we had to stay in condemned buildings on the other side of the island.”
He said that they were given buckets, brooms and mops to clean out the cells where they were to stay for the following 48 hours.
“The cells were awful,” Mojica said. “They were full of trash, feces and some black substance covering the floors. Some of the cells had no running water and toilets that would not flush.”
On Monday, they were allowed to go back out to the Sprungs. He was also allowed to call his mother and learned that his family was safe.
The New York State Department of Corrections denies claims that inmates were unable to use phones during the storm. According to the warden of the facility, who was on site at Rikers throughout the storm, staff members were told that all inmates be allowed to make their phone calls.
But one former inmate who was released two years ago also remembers being unable to use the phones to call his family during storms at Rikers. Richard Hairston, of Hunts Point, was in and out of Rikers from the age of 18 until the age of 27. He was being held in the Sprungs during a major rainstorm in December, 2002.
“It rained for four days,” he said. “Four days with no phones.” Hairston’s mother was frantic. He explained that it’s natural for mothers to worry about their sons on Rikers during the rain. “We are on a small island in the middle of a huge river,” he said. “The thought of heavy rainfall or storms on Rikers just gets my mom panicked. She thinks of me drowning.”
When Hairston was finally allowed to use the phone after the storm, he immediately called his mother. “I was so grateful to hear her voice,” he said. “During all my years at Rikers and prisons upstate, I missed my mom the most.”
He also said that being moved from the Sprungs during a storm is a luxury. “When it rains, we get wet inside the Sprungs,” he said. “Water drips on us during the night making us too cold to sleep.” Each day the inmates would sweep standing water from the floor of the Sprungs so that it would not flood. But Sharman Stein, spokesperson for the Department of Corrections, maintains that the vast majority of Rikers Island is not located in a flood zone.
Prisoner rights groups such as Critical Resistance and Solitary Watch created a petition calling upon New York City to create an evacuation plan for Rikers Island in the event of a future storm. But no action has been taken. “Only one facility is located in a flood zone, but is not susceptible to loss of life.” Stein said in response to questioning about the progress of an evacuation plan for Rikers. “In that instance, the inmates and staff assigned to the first floor would be relocated to higher floors in the jail.”
New York City Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association spokesman Michael Stilly does not think an anticipatory evacuation plan for Rikers is necessary.
He says that it is extremely difficult to evacuate 13,000 inmates under maximum security, plus hundreds of officers, to another location and still maintain the peace.
“We have to prepare for incidents as they come and trust our officers,” he said. “They look after society’s most violent criminals 24 hours a day. I believe they can weather a storm.” He also added that union members are their top priority.
But Ortega demands a plan. “Our sons deserve a way off the island in the event of a major storm,” she said. “They are just kids who are still awaiting trial. In they eyes of the law they are innocent. Don’t they deserve better than this?”