Whenever we hear the phrase “vulnerable population,” our thoughts usually go to the obvious – those people and places where we find our most defenseless: hospitals, nursing homes, and schools. When pressed, we might even consider the isolated personnel of a polar research station, an aircraft carrier at sea or even a high level research station as being vulnerable populations. However, one group of individuals who will be almost universally omitted as being “vulnerable” in a disaster are those we confine in prisons.      Whether one considers the existence of jails and prisons to be ethical or not, they are a fact of life in every country and continent on the planet, with the exception of Antarctica. According to the UN’s Disaster Management Training program, the dilemmas facing emergency assistance providers are numerous and often entail having to make choices between undesirable alternatives when dealing with vulnerable populations. How we treat this particular kind of vulnerable population can also serve to help us when confronted by other, equally difficult ethical dilemmas. When you have a tornado bearing down on both an old age home and a primary school, what is the best course of action to take? Do you tell them they are in harm’s way or not? Do you only tell one and not the other? What are the ethical implications for or against your actions? Who do you save, and why? And most importantly, how do you this ethically?

In the context of disaster, especially one which has an impact on a carcel institution, decisions made on an ethical basis may have significant and lasting impact on the communities served. Thus the questions to be asked include: Who has the authority to make such significant ethical decisions? How should ethical decisions be made? What principles and values should guide those in ethical decision making processes? And what is responsible action in response to human need?

Recognizing the basic humanity of all those who can be found within the confines of concertina wire and concrete, disaster planning for prisons is usually a fraught exercise, with “Let ‘em rot!” often being the preferred outcome. Given this (somewhat insensitive) reaction to most initiatives which involve prisons, it is easy to see how simply trying to use an “ethical approach” to disaster planning and management for prisons might be dismissed

By examining the distinct ethical approaches of Moral worth/Kantian ethics, Virtue ethics and Lifeboat ethics, I will try to highlight some of the considerations required when using a (purely) ethical approach towards disaster management for the vulnerable populations of prisons, review their validity, and make some recommendations regarding the use of such approaches to disaster planning for prisons.


Using this approach, an emergency manager acts in a “morally worthy” way out of duty and nothing else. Once we recognize that there is a perfect duty to perform, we are to act; when we have an opportunity to perform an imperfect duty, we may choose not to. But we must be prepared to act according to the imperfect duty on other occasions.

As an example, during an emergency event a first responder with a sick spouse at home opts to stay home (family comes first). The next time, using a similar emergency scenario, instead of a spouse, it is a mother-in-law who is sick. Per Kant, the ethical requirement is that the first responder must now abide by his “family comes first” duty, even though they may not want to stay home with the mother-in-law.

When a Kantian ethical approach is used, once the duty to provide assistance is accepted at the planning stage, it is incumbent on the emergency manager to ensure that the tools needed to prepare for, respond to and recover from a disaster are not only identified but allocated. Much like a dog with a bone, the duty to assist, simply as the right thing to do, must be adhered.


With Virtue (or Value) ethics, the focus is on what kind of person the EM should be, rather than on how one should act. The premise of virtue ethics is that right actions are defined according to the virtues of those who perform the actions. By tradition, virtues fall into four categories: a) virtues of the intellect (wisdom and prudence); b) virtues of the spirit (courage and fortitude); c) virtues of emotion (temperance and moderation); finally the virtues of harmony and civil order (justice). Put simply, only the good (virtuous) person can know what the good action is in any given circumstance and therefore, what virtuous people do, determines what “good” and “bad” are.

Since virtue ethicists believe that there is an inherent link between what good actions are and what the good person does, an emergency manager would find that these attributes inform all four pillars of emergency management for prisons and thus transforms the obligations of a responder from aspirational goals to ethical imperatives.

However, the practice of virtue ethics sometimes falls significantly short, as highlighted by events during Hurricane Irene, August 20 and 28, 2011. Anticipating a direct hit from Irene, emergency officials in New York City feared for the safety and well-being of those who opted to ride out the storm by remaining at home. However, emergency officials completely overlooked one significant and highly vulnerable group in their evacuation plans, namely the 12,000 inmates held at Rikers Island jail complex. This was despite the fact that Rikers Island is partially constructed on land fill, sits in the East River, a salt water tidal strait, and is vulnerable to storm surges.[1] Although Hurricane Irene did not create the kind of damage that had been anticipated, the virtue of being a “Good Shepherd” for all New Yorkers appears to have been abandoned when the “wolf” was at the door.


Lifeboat ethics more or less mandates that actions be governed by a zero-sum solution – the limited capacity of agents is the ultimate arbiter of who survives and who does not. Prisons are neither alone not unique when it comes to the vulnerable; old age homes, mental health facilities, homeless shelters, all become easy targets for exclusion.

During “high-consequence events”, prisons become a kind of “anti-lifeboat” or dog pound, where an already constrained capacity leaves local prison authorities to face lifeboat situations without the ability to access resources, including staff, supplies or means to relocate, if necessary.  This is the only lifeboat where everyone wants to leave but no one wants to get into the water and those in the water would rather wait for a lifeboat that may never come. Even if a few hardy souls do manage to crawl aboard, capacity is eventually overwhelmed and those in the lifeboat share the same fate as those in the water – everyone drowns.

Since any emergency plan which would call for an early release of even the most low-risk of inmates would likely be met with some form of public outrage, further complicating operational and logistical quandaries during high consequence events are the presence of life sentence/death row inmates, where the safety and security of the surrounding community, as well as other inmates and carceral staff, must be balanced against the principles of justice for all and basic human decency.  While a mass execution, as an extreme possibility, might serve to mitigate immediate public concerns about “mad dogs” in their midst, for the remaining inmates, such actions would magnify the mistrust already endemic in prisons and highlight the decision makers’ biases towards their prisoners.


Regardless of ethical approach, the prima facie caveat of emergency management is that helping vulnerable people in a disaster area is a non-negotiable imperative for all DEM practitioners.  However, that caveat is sorely tested when the disaster area includes a prison or other carceral institution.  Determining who are the most vulnerable and who should be the beneficiaries of prompt aid, needs to be made in such a way that all human life is preserved, insofar as it is possible to do so, while simultaneously acknowledging the “penitential” social contract that exists between the incarcerated and society in general.


In the resource-constrained setting of a high-consequence event, prisons are at particular risk for abandonment and neglect.  Already marginalized in terms of geographic location and social standing, prisons are often deliberately and explicitly deprived of those capacities which would ordinarily serve as a buffer to largely externally-driven vulnerabilities.   When it comes to emergency management for these vulnerable populations, much of the challenge that confronts emergency managers lies in the fact that they may be called upon to solve ethical dilemmas within an urgent timeframe.

Future research and discussion would be useful in exploring the intersection between the practicalities of emergency resource allocations for prisons, the risk classifications of, and threat analysis for inmates, as well as the surrounding community, and the other types of ethical philosophies which might inform decisions to do so.

[1]Fox, James. “Inmate Safety and Emergency Preparedness – Corrections.com.” Inmate Safety and Emergency Preparedness. 5 Mar. 2012. Web. 17 Mar. 2015.

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