Prisons During Natural Disasters: What to do and how to prepare?

18:58 hours on the 16th of April 2016. An earthquake with the magnitude of 7.8 on the Richter scale hits the coast of Ecuador. For over 40 seconds, the earth shakes, trembles. People who lived it describe it as if the earth has turned into the sea, with giant waves that make you unable to keep standing up. At least 676 people were killed and over 16,000 injured. During and directly after the occurrence of natural disasters, our thought and prayers immediately go out to these victims and their families, however we rarely consider – and often forget – that prisoners are part of this group.

Aftermath of the earthquake in Pedernales, Ecuador. Source: El Ciudad al Día
Aftermath of the earthquake in Pedernales, Ecuador. Source: El Ciudad al Día.

So what happens to prisoners during natural disasters?

Research (mainly American, European, Australasian) shows that many penal institutions do not have a emergency plan, or the ones that do exist are inadequate or outdated. As a consequence, prisoners are amongst those most affected by natural disasters. For example, when Hurricane Katrina hit the United States’ southern coast in 2008, the consequences of the lack of emergency planning in prisons became painfully clear. When the entire parish of New Orleans was evacuated, the New Orlean Parish Prison was excluded. As a consequence,  prisoners were abandoned in their cell for three days without food or water in unsanitary conditions when the prison began to flood with sewage water, reaching up to their shoulders.

And in Ecuador?

In Ecuador, one prison in particular was heavily affected by the 2016 earthquake. When a wall came down in the Centro de Rehabilitación – El Rodeo, a prison in Portoviejo, over a 100 prisoners fled the building. One can image the different reasons for doing so: maybe some saw an opportunity, took it and escaped. But it is more likely that these prisoners were scared for their lives, being locked up in a cell during one of the heaviest earthquakes in Ecuador. Nonetheless, a few returned in the days following their escape, explaining they were worried about the lives of their loved ones and therefore took off. Listen to Leiton Fernandez García, emotionally explaining this reasons to escape (in Spanish).

How should prisons respond during disasters?

When people are sentenced to prison, their punishment is the deprivation of liberty. From the moment the enter the prison building, they do not decide where to go, what to do and when to do it. The institution takes control over their daily choices, making it responsible for the well-being of the dependents. And more so during natural disasters, when prisoners have nowhere to go, the prison administration is morally and legally obliged to ensure their safety and respect their dignity as a human right.

“48% of the prison population is awaiting trial in prison (and thus) presumably innocent”

Moreover, a large proportion of those in detention have not yet been sentenced. In Ecuador, 48% of the prison population is awaiting trial in prison. So during a natural disaster, half the affected prison population is presumably innocent and should not receive any form of punishment let alone denigration treatment.

The United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners provide an indispensable overview of the basic human rights that should be guaranteed for all prisoners. During emergencies, it is the responsibility of the prison administration to uphold these minimum standards to the highest extend possible, with the main concerns being: medical care (physical as well as mental and emotional health), basic needs (food, water, shelter, ventilation and light), safety and dignity as human beings.

How can prisons prepare for disasters?

Since the summer of 2017, I am living in Pedernales, Ecuador, the epicentre of the 2016 earthquake. As part of an EU programme, I give trainings on disaster risk reduction and support the local communities in mitigating the effects of a future earthquake. So far, I have experienced two earthquakes myself, none resulting in any injuries or damages.

Drawing upon my experience with disaster risk reduction here in Ecuador and with prison research in general, I can offer the following recommendations to all prison administrations preparing for natural disasters:

emergency plan
Source: Blewbury, UK
  • Assign a designated person and, if necessary, department responsible for the emergency preparedness and response with a dedicated budget to do so.
  • Develop an emergency plan, preferably one general plan that includes separate annexes related to different types of emergencies.
  • Train all staff and employees on the proper emergency response and their roles in the contingency plan.
  • Organize regular drills and exercises related to the emergency plan including inmates.
  • Revise and update the emergency plan regularly, at least after each exercise or emergency situation.

How do prisons in Ecuador score?

Unfortunately, no mentioning of any form of disaster preparedness in penal institution can be found on the official government’s website. Regarding El Rodeo in Portoviejo, a large part of the institution was rebuild and this summer the Ministry of Justice proudly presented the new facilities (see video, in Spanish). I truly hope that this renovation includes a similar renovation of their emergency plan, so that during the next natural disaster, we do no longer forget about those in prison.


Note: technically, there are no such things as “natural disasters”. The intensity or risk of a disaster is influenced by different components, namely: hazard, exposure and vulnerability. For the readability of this article, “natural disasters” refers to “disasters with a natural drive”, such as earthquakes, tsunamis and in some cases floods and fires. For more information, visit Prevention Web.

2 thoughts on “Prisons During Natural Disasters: What to do and how to prepare?

  1. Hele mooie combi, Sien. Je passie voor gevangenissen (of gevangenen, of rechtvaardigheid) en je leven nu in Ecuador. Eens kijken of iemand dit oppikt.

    Kus, Mama

    Van: The Panopticon Chronicles Verzonden: maandag 11 december 2017 13:06 Aan: Onderwerp: [New post] Prisons During Natural Disasters: What to do and how to prepare?

    Panopticon Chronicles posted: “18:58 hours on the 16th of April 2016. An earthquake with the magnitude of 7.8 on the scale of Richter hits the coast of Ecuador. For over 40 seconds, the earth shakes, trembles. People who lived it describe it as if the earth has turned into the sea, wit”


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