Texas prisons take hit from Harvey, complaints of water, sewage problems surface
Hurricane Harvey dealt a beating to prison and jail facilities in southeast Texas, triggering evacuations, marooning staff and depriving prisoners of toilets and running water as it cut a bruising path across the state.
Thousands of inmates remained in limbo Monday, including hundreds who fled rising floodwaters only to be taken to a Navasota facility a federal judge had deemed too dangerously hot for inmates with medical conditions.
The crisis now centers on Beaumont, where flooding compromised the water supply at three federal and three state prisons inside the city limits. While city officials scrambled to get treatment facilities up and running, many correctional officers couldn’t cross the swollen Neches River to get to their jobs.
“It’s a dire situation,” said Lance Lowry, who heads the Texas Correctional Employees union in Huntsville. “Several hundred officers in the Beaumont area are unable to get in and staffing is critical at those units.”
Lowry said staff-to-inmate ratios don’t allow for wiggle room when there is an emergency. A guard said in one online forum that those who made it in to work have been spread very thin.
However, Jason Clark, spokesman for Texas Department of Criminal Justice, said he thought Lowry’s estimate that hundreds of prison guards were out of pocket was high.
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The state shipped in more than 90 officers from across the state to fill the gap at Mark W. Stiles Unit, Larry Gist State Jail and Richard P. LeBlanc Unit, providing enough personnel to run the facilities safely. He said many guards in the Beaumont and Houston areas had lost their homes and were still making it to work.
In the meantime, however, worried family members have fielded a range of complaints from relatives at the Beaumont prisons — including minimal access to drinking water, barebones meals and poor access to medicine.
At least one inmate reported the floodwaters were immediately at hand.
Clifton Cloer, 42, who is housed in a first floor unit at the Stiles unit, told his wife Lindsey Disheroon there was standing water up to his kneecaps when the storm came through. On Monday, Sept. 4, he called to say the water was calf-high.
But Clark, the TDCJ spokesman, said that he toured the three state facilities in Beaumont on Sunday with top prison administrators and said floodwaters did not get into the facilities.
“There is no water near the units,” Clark said. “I spoke with offenders and given the situation they were in good spirits.”
At Beaumont’s federal units, family members shared complaints from inmates that their health had been severely compromised since the flooding.
Johnathan Grimes, 37, a diabetic with high blood pressure, told his mother, Margaret Greene, that he could not get his medication for days at the low-security federal facility because the infirmary was so understaffed.
David Vergara, 32, an inmate at the medium security federal prison who also has diabetes and hypertension, told his wife Rachel he’d seen people faint from a lack of drinking water. He told her he had resorted to drinking discolored and possibly contaminated toilet water to stay hydrated.
“In the mornings his eyelids will stick to his eyeballs. His tongue is dry — it sticks to the top of his mouth,” she said.
Bureau of Prisons officials at the Beaumont facilities do not respond to multiple requests for comment.
However, a website for the facility said that power had been restored to the Federal Correctional Facility on Friday and generators were no longer needed.
The first facilities impacted were four county jails on the Gulf Coast near Aransas Pass that voluntarily evacuated before Harvey made landfall on Aug. 25, said Brandon Wood, executive director of the Texas Commission on Jail Standards.
All four jails were built to withstand a Category 5 hurricane, but wardens opted to evacuate as a precaution, Wood said. Inmates were back on site at all but one of those facilities, he said. The Aransas County Jail sustained some structural damage, he said, but officials expected said it should be operational within a couple of weeks.
Parolees were also evacuated from halfway houses in Gulf Coast communities, Houston and in Beaumont and taken to facilities around the state. Clark, from TDCJ, said that 13 female parolees had been taken from a halfway house in Beaumont to the Goree unit and 158 male parolees were staying at the Stiles Unit.
He said another 232 parolees from the Southeast Texas Transitional Center in Houston, which sustained flooding, were housed during the storm at the Holliday Transfer Facility in Huntsville and the Gib Lewis Unit in Woodville. On Monday, that entire Houston group was moved to Chasefield in Beeville, to a separate building outside the perimeter fence.
“As soon as those halfway houses are operational, we will move them back,” Clark said.
Most of the hastily emptied state prison buildings along the swollen Brazos River were spared the brunt of the storm but outbuildings, a trusty camp and training academy at the Ramsey unit were inundated. The C.T. Terrell and A.M. “Mac” Stringfellow units and training academy also sustained damage, Clark said.
Some buildings also had roof and fence damage.
Before the deluge, the state evacuated 5,900 inmates by the busloads from several prisons along the swollen Brazos River in Rosharon and Richmond and took them to facilities with room generally in gyms and multi-use areas.
On Monday, TDCJ began bringing 1,400 evacuated inmates back to the Jester 3 and Carol S. Vance units in Richmond. The Ramsey, Stringfellow and Terrell Units were not yet operational as of late Monday, Clark said.
Those removed from the Brazos River area went to several state facilities including the Wallace Pack Unit, which is under an emergency federal court order to keep heat-sensitive inmates out of housing areas that do not have air conditioning. More than 1,000 inmates from Stringfellow were sent to the Pack Unit, Clark said.
There was plenty of room for them, since in mid-August, TDCJ moved more than 1,000 heat-sensitive inmates to facilities with air-conditioned dormitories.
“The department evaluated the projections related to the Brazos River and determined that three units needed to be evacuated immediately — 4,500 offenders were moved within 24 hours,” Clark said. “Inmates were moved quickly and safely to units that could accommodate them appropriately, including the Pack Unit.”
Clark said the placement of Stringfellow inmates at Pack was meant to be temporary.
“This is an unprecedented flood of historic magnitude,” he said. “The agency will continue to take appropriate steps to ensure staff and offenders are not in harm’s way and are safe.”
But Jeff Edwards, the lead attorney for the Pack inmates’ civil right lawsuit, said he was told that about 600 inmates who came over from Stringfellow may be heat sensitive, which he said could mean they are in violation of U.S. District Judge Keith P. Ellison’s order.
“While Harvey undoubtedly had devastating effects on many parts of Texas and several prisons, the idea that the leaders of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice have chosen to violate a federal order and expose hundreds of its most vulnerable inmates to dangerous heat levels at the Pack Unit that Judge Ellison has already ruled were unconstitutional is beyond disappointing,” Edwards said. “It reflects a callousness and indifference not just to the inmates but also to the federal courts.
“You can’t fix one dangerous situation with one that has already been ruled unconstitutional,” Edwards said.