What Happens to Prison Inmates Caught in Hurricanes?
Texas prisoners say they went days without running water after Harvey.
Beaumont's medium-security prison. Photo via the federal Bureau of Prisons
As strained local governments struggle to care for their citizens during disasters and evacuations, prisoners are often low on the list of priorities. That means it's likely that any big hurricane that hits the Gulf Coast will result in a slew of human rights abuses, both reported and unreported, at Southern prisons.
Back in 2005, when Katrina hit New Orleans, prison guards abandoned prisoners in locked cells as the floodwaters rose chest-high. Several thousand of those inmates were eventually rescued, but then miserably housed on a broken piece of interstate, directly exposed to the Southern summer sun.
But it's unclear whether prisons learned much from Katrina.
Harvey touched down as a Category 4 hurricane in Texas on Friday, August 25. The next day, as floodwaters rose, the state began evacuating some 7,000 prisoners, addicts in treatment, and people in halfway houses—but thousands of other Texas prisoners remained behind, and some lacked adequate food, water, or bathrooms, say their families.
Rachel Vergara's husband remained in the Beaumont's medium-security federal prison, which did not evacuate. When her husband began sending her SOS emails from inside the prison, she started a Facebook page in hopes of attracting family members of other prisoners around Houston. The wives she met online began forwarding her their husbands' emails from the week after Harvey, with plenty of worrying details. (I am not publishing the inmates' names to protect their identities.)
Beaumont's water system was damaged, resulting in backed-up prison toilets and undrinkable tap water. Inmates were given two bottles of drinking water a day, according to one email, and some went more than ten days without a shower. Occupied cells definitely flooded, according to another. "Prisoners are defecating in trash bags to prevent the excruciating smell of their own human feces," said one from September 3. "UA Unit is stagnated with the smell." One inmate whose account was relayed by the Houston Chronicle said he saw someone pass out from malnutrition.
Texas prison officials declined to be interviewed. Azzurra Crispino of Prison Abolition Prisoner Support (PAPS) has found collecting reports of prisoners suffering in the wake of Harvey deeply frustrating.
"I know nothing yet about Harris County Jail, where 10,000 prisoners weren't evacuated, even though I know that downtown Houston flooded. A few of these prisons got flooded, and they didn't evacuate them," Crispino told me, adding that the information she gets from official sources often can't be trusted. "Some of these jails will say that they evacuated their prisoners, and you later find out that means the prisoners were moved elsewhere on the same property."
By mass mailing packets of legal paperwork to prisoners, PAPS helped put family members in touch with Prisoners Legal Action Network (PLAN), and this week, Crispino and lawyers delivered administrative legal filings to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.
Life for the Beaumont inmates is now finally inching back to as normal as life gets in prison. "They are getting hot meals now—every three days because they are working to fix the kitchen," said Vergara. "They are not letting us in yet… The AC is finally on though. They have lights. But there is mold in there now. They still need to get them out of there."
In the Caribbean, which was hit by Hurricane Irma earlier this month, it is still unclear how prison inmates fared. Those in Guantánamo Bay stayed put, with a facility spokesperson telling VICE News there was no significant damage. A friend of mine currently in Cuba says he's seen prisoners working to clear streets of debris. "That is very common down there, yes," a retired Caribbean prison warden (who wished to remain anonymous) told me. "You are going to be seeing that a lot after Irma."
In Puerto Rico—financially struggling and forced to file for a type of bankruptcy in May—old infrastructure caused 300,000 residents to lose power before Irma even hit. Some 1.5 million people may now be left without electricity for months, including some of that American territory's 12,000-odd prison inmates. But officials are working on it.
"At the moment only one institution is without electric service, Campamento Zarzal, but the complex maintains an emergency generator," emailed Hector Perez Cintron, a spokesman for the Puerto Rico Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. "All the inmates remained in their cells during Hurricane Irma, since all the institutions are built in such a way that they can withstand the winds of a hurricane. The Institutions do not have problems of flooding, due to the drainage system that they have."
Irma then moved on to Florida, which underwent the largest evacuation in that state's history. Some 7,000 prisoners were moved north.
Though Miami was ordered to evacuate, Miami's prisons did not; the facilities sustained only minor damage, according to a statement from the federal Bureau of Prisons.
A prison guard who worked in several different Florida prisons over the course of a five-year career before recently quitting, isn't confident Florida's facilities are ready are equipped to deal with a truly bad hurricane. A couple years ago, she said, a prison where she worked tried an evacuation drill that involved gathering up all the special-needs inmates, their records, and their medications, but it was so much hassle prison employees called it off in the middle. "The guards just said 'Forget it, we'll do it again another time,'" the former guard said. "And we never did do it again."
In any event, even a week later advocates weren't sure how prison inmates had weathered the latest storms. "We have not yet heard from any inmates in FLA directly to be able to talk about the impact," said Crispino, who added, "It's very rare when working with prisoner interests that you get information in real time. It will probably be a couple weeks before we get any information about Florida."
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