NORFOLK, Va. (WAVY) - A group of human rights lawyers has filed a lawsuit against three sheriffs alleging that the elected officials are putting nearly 2,500 inmates in danger by not evacuating jails in Norfolk, Portsmouth and Chesapeake before Hurricane Florence makes landfall.
The lawsuit was filed by Nexus Derechos Humanos Attorneys, Inc. against Norfolk Sheriff Joe Baron, Portsmouth Sheriff Michael A. Moore and Chesapeake Sheriff Jim O'Sullivan.
The Atlanta-based attorneys filed the lawsuit on Wednesday — two days after Gov. Ralph Northam ordered a mandatory evacuation for Virginians living in Zone A.
Virginia's hurricane evacuation plan separates localities into four zones. Zone A is comprised of communities that are most prone to flooding in the Commonwealth. 10 On Your Side used the "Know Your Zone" tool to look up the addresses of the Norfolk, Portsmouth and Chesapeake jails and confirmed that they are located in Zone A.
At the time of Northam's mandatory evacuation order little was known about Hurricane Florence's eventual path. Throughout the week, 10 On Your Side has been tracking the storm, which was downgraded from a Category 4 hurricane on Wednesday to a Category 2 hurricane on Thursday.
Hurricane Florence is scheduled to make landfall early on Friday morning in the Wilmington, N.C. area. Although it originally looked like the Hampton Roads area might be located in the hurricane's path, the storm has shifted to the southwest and will likely have a greater impact on communities in North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia.
10 On Your Side's meteorologists say that while Hampton Roads is not in Hurricane Florence's direct path, the area could still see flooding.
The federal complaint filed by Nexus Derechos Humanos Attorneys states that by not evacuating under a mandatory order from the governor, the sheriffs are violating the inmates' Constitutional right to safety and security.
"Our country's Constitution simply cannot tolerate this type of discriminatory treatment, where all free citizens evacuate to save their lives, but inmates are placed in dire straits at a local jail because they are incarcerated — noting that many inmates are pretrial detainees who have been merely accused of a crime," the federal complaint states.
The lawsuit also pointed to the fact that the Indian Creek Correctional Center, located in a Zone D section of Chesapeake, evacuated about 1,000 inmates ahead of Hurricane Florence.
"By refusing to follow the evacuation order from Governor Northam, Norfolk, Chesapeake, and Portsmouth are not only placing almost 2,500 inmates in danger, but also the officers and civil servants charged to stay and guard and tend to jails," the federal complaint states.
10 On Your Side spoke with Mike Donovan, president and CEO of Nexus Services, who pointed to how mandatory evacuations are defined on city websites in Norfolk, Portsmouth and Chesapeake.
Information posted to Norfolk's government websites state that mandatory evacuations "are just that; you must evacuate. If you choose to stay, you do so at your own risk."
"If that's the policy of Norfolk city government why on earth would we not evacuate a jail that's located in a mandatory evacuation zone," Donovan said. "You can't abide by the idea that some lives are more important than others and some lives are worth risking."
10 On Your Side reached out to representatives from the Norfolk, Portsmouth and Chesapeake Sheriff's Office.
Portsmouth Undersheriff Col. Marvin A. Waters Jr. said that the Portsmouth City Jail is equipped to weather the storm and remain operational for an extended period of time. Jail staff prepared for Hurricane Florence by bringing in extra medical staff and supplies, like generators, water pumps and food.
"This lawsuit has a number of inaccuracies such as the facility being in the direct path of a category 4 hurricane," Waters said. "If a weather event presented a threat that we were not prepared to handle, we would activate our evacuation plan that is not release to the public for safety reasons."
Similarly, a Chesapeake Sheriff's Office spokeswoman Janelle Scott said that O'Sullivan is "100 percent confident" he made the right choice to shelter inmates and staff in place throughout the storm.
Baron told 10 On Your Side that during inclement weather the jail accesses the risks of evacuation by listening to the latest information and expert opinions.
"All due precautions are taken to ensure continued safe operations of the Norfolk City Jail to include food services, medical services, and staffing to respond to any safety and security needs of those in our care," Baron said.
Donovan told 10 On Your Side that attorneys served the sheriffs of the three cities with the lawsuit on Thursday and that a federal judge held a hearing on a temporary restraining order in the case that day. The judge found the TRO moot, but scheduled a Sept. 20 briefing on the matter of declaratory relief.
Stay tuned to 10 On Your Side for updates to this story.
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