In Texas Prisons, Horror Stories Emerge From Catastrophic Blackout

    As a winter storm battered Texas, 4.5 million people lost power. A humanitarian crisis mounted across the state, as residents lost heat and running water while food stocks dwindled. Dozens have died since February 11, likely from hypothermia. People without basic services sought sanctuary with friends, received assistance from mutual aid groups or, in the case of Senator Ted Cruz, fled to the warmer pastures of a balmy beachside resort in Cancún.

    People incarcerated in the state’s prisons and jails couldn’t escape as temperatures plummeted and water stopped flowing. Cold air wafted through windows that had been smashed over the summer to deal with the sweltering heat. Those detained at the Victoria County Jail received one water bottle each day. In the Harris County Jail, which holds almost 9,000 people—nearly 90 percent of whom are in pre-trial detention—an overpowering smell of urine emanated from toilets that couldn’t flush.

    Faith Blake, a woman incarcerated at the Federal Medical Center in Carswell (FMC Carswell) told the Star-Telegram that her fingers turned blue from the cold. The Intercept reported that Reality Winner, also incarcerated at FMC Carswell, said that women were removing feces from toilets with their hands. Prisons across the state experienced similar conditions.

    “They are trapped in there with feces, with water up to their ankles. They do not have anywhere to defecate at. There’s no cleaning supplies. There’s no water made available,” Cynthia Simons, the women’s fellow at the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, told Filter. Even as the prisons restore regular functioning, she said, incarcerated people aren’t getting necessary medical attention. 

    Texas has the largest state-run prison system in the country. In 2019, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDJC) managed the incarceration of more than 158,400 people.

    Thirty-two prisons had to rely on generators for power, according to TDCJ Director of Communications Jeremy Desel. Thirty-three facilities experienced low water or lost external water sources, forcing them to rely on backup supplies.

    “We deal with severe winter weather in parts of the state every year and hurricane situations in the southern parts of the state nearly every year as well, so we are very accustomed to both preparation for events and the response to them,” Diesel said in an email statement to Filter. “The difference here is the statewide scope of the emergency.” 

    According to Diesel, the TDCJ took “significant actions” to prepare for the storms, including issuing prisoners additional warm clothing and water and topping off emergency generators.

    “You know that you’ve lost power, you’ve lost water and the guards don’t want to come say anything to you.”

    Maggie Luna, the mental health peer policy fellow for the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, questioned why the state hadn’t prepared further. 

    “I understand this was all a disaster we all had to suffer … but when you have people’s lives in your hands, and you know the unit is not fit for a hurricane, much less a winter storm, there should have been something in place,” said Luna, who was incarcerated in the Lucile Plane State Jail during Hurricane Harvey.

    “I know what it’s like to be sitting in a cage and you have no idea what’s going on on the outside. You just know that you’ve lost power, you’ve lost water and the guards don’t want to come say anything to you.”

    Over the past week, Luna had been contacted with a stream of horror stories from people with incarcerated loved ones, including one about a man in the Smith Unit who didn’t have enough water to take his medicine.

    During 2017’s Hurricane Harvey, the state’s incarceration facilities suffered crippling shutdowns. Floodwaters poured into facilities. Water shut off, preventing prisoners from flushing water. Access to drinking water diminished. Some 6,000 incarcerated people were evacuated as the storm inundated the state. The National Lawyers Guild called conditions in Texas’s federal and state-run prisons “persistently unconstitutional,” noting that the Bureau of Prisons knew of the dangers brought by the hurricane but failed to ensure that incarcerated people could receive necessities.

    As climate change increases the number of extreme weather events, Texas, like states around the country, will face more strain on its essential infrastructure. TDCJ did not respond to Filter’s question about how the state prison system would adapt its emergency planning after dire conditions struck facilities last week. 

    The way the department prepares for disasters now, Simons said, is “just very inhumane.



    Photograph via Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons 4.0

    • Daniel is a freelance reporter whose work has been published in outlets including Fortune, The Appeal and Gothamist. He will FOIA documents related to criminal justice if you ask nicely. He lives in Brooklyn.

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