All the Crazy Things I Saw in Prison During Hurricane Harvey
Illustration by Ryan Inzana
On August 26, 2017, at 3 AM, I awake to an officer screaming for everyone to get up and hurry to the second floor of our unit. Thunder crashes in the distance, and raindrops the size of quarters smack the window by my bunk.
Soon, I hear only the sound of 100 panicking women mumbling and shuffling to the latest disaster befalling us: Hurricane Harvey.
Now someone is saying there’s a flood outside. Duh. Given the way the Texas Department of Criminal Justice built this place, the sidewalks overflow during even the lightest rain, creating a constant slip-and-fall hazard for the predominantly disabled offender population here.
But this is no light rain. Outside the dorm, I see the water is falling way faster than the ground can absorb it. There is a big lake out there, as far as the eye can see.
To get to the main building, I must wade into it, knee-deep. That’s when I notice the ladies with wheelchairs, walkers and crutches are struggling. One woman is crying hysterically because she is afraid of water, and the dorm boss can’t get her to take one step forward.
An altruistic and able-bodied woman hefts the fearful one onto her back, and away they go. I get behind a lady in a wheelchair and give her a push.
Eventually we all make it the 75 yards to the hospital building at Carole Young Medical Unit. Most of us live in one-story dorms just north of the hospital, and our only way to the larger, safer hospital building is along a narrow strip of sidewalk outside.
As I enter the air-conditioned building, my skin quickly senses another danger: wet clothes, cold air, and the weakened immune systems of women already facing life-threatening illnesses such as cancer, kidney failure, and post-surgical wound sites.
“What’s going on, boss?” I ask an officer. “Are we in danger? How long will we be up here? Will we be leaving the prison?”
Others fire off similar questions at him, but instead of saying, ‘I don’t know,’ and acknowledging that no protocols exist for such a disaster, he simply ignores us.
Within a couple hours, everyone is given dry clothes that don’t fit, and the 300 women from the ground-level dorms plus 150 more from the hospitalized population are crowded into the second-floor hallways, therapy rooms and groups of cells. The officers and nursing staff haven’t been allowed to leave either, a captain informs us.
Apparently, the flooding has made it impossible to get to and from the prison.
Warden Lorie Larson comes through, soaked to the bone, makeup smeared and saying something about her car having been swept away.
Meanwhile our unit boss still has not left, slept, or been able to take a break and go out to her car and call her family.
She has to pee, but there’s no other staff to relieve her, so she can’t go to the officers’ restroom in the building next door.
“Just use our toilets,” I urge. “I’ll look out for you in case another officer comes in.”
This isn’t allowed because it leaves the officer compromised should an inmate try to pull something. But it isn’t the policy violation that makes her hold it in.
“No way! That’s nasty!” she says.
“Suit yourself,” I say, and return to my new bed to get some much-needed rest.
Rain continues to fall for the next two days, and the same officers remain, showering upstairs and sleeping in shifts on an empty pod. We’re confined to our cubicles, unable to watch the news and worried about our families; for every meal, we get “Johnny sacks” (brown-bag lunches).
I’m assigned to constantly mopping up the water coming in.
When the rain finally stops, a lieutenant and a posse of officers enter our dorm screaming at us to pack up all of our property in bags or tie it in a sheet because we are leaving in a hurry.
Huh? Where are we going? Why are they taking precautions now? Did they get the memo late?
I begin hearing people complain about not being able to carry all their stuff. I look around and realize that few people will have the strength to carry their loads.
After all, Carole Young’s ground-level dorms house about a hundred pregnant women and a hundred other inmates who are either disabled or on dialysis, chemotherapy or radiation.
The dorm boss calls the lieutenant on the radio and informs him of their clearly overlooked dilemma. Shortly thereafter, he returns with instructions to place our property on our beds so it won’t get wet if we can’t carry it.
The lieutenant tells us to pack just one small bag, with only hygiene products, writing materials, and underwear.
I conceal my coffee, pictures of my family, and a couple of ramen noodles packets inside a pair of panties, stuff it in my bag, and head out the door.
Later, I suddenly begin to hear pieces of information being communicated to the officers and staff on their radios: “Possible breach of reservoir…. Corps of Engineers.…”
“Everyone get in line at the elevators with your bags right now!” the lieutenant hollers again and again.
A woman asks if she can take her pictures of her kids, because it is all she has to remember them by.
“What the fuck don’t you understand about ‘hygiene, writing materials, and underwear?! Gimme that shit.” The lieutenant takes her bag and throws it aside, and tells her to get in line.
I can see in his eyes that he, too, is scared.
Suddenly the pace changes again. Senior Warden Don Bosco has appeared out of nowhere and begins assigning us places to sit. We aren’t going anywhere. I find a spot on the floor and listen to everyone complain.
A few hours later, an officer who’d been at home makes it to work and gives us the scoop that we’ve all been desperate to hear. Apparently, he says, the rain has filled up the reservoir (close to four billion gallons of water) that sits about 60 yards from our prison, and the Army Corps of Engineers thinks it might be about to breach.
But the buses aren’t coming to get us.
And if they can’t get here, neither can any of our supply trucks. Our food supply is quickly diminishing, and I lose count of how many of our meals end up being bowls of Frosted Flakes.
Fear overcomes me. I keep looking out the window, envisioning a precarious lake rushing at us, washing me away. What if it does? What if the Harvey waters sweep me over the fence and out of prison? Will I be charged with escape for my accidental freedom?
Silly rumors are going around about some high-ranking official, with the authority to make such an order, deciding to let us go. Opening the gates and allowing us to take the risk and save ourselves, if they don’t have the resources to do it themselves.
What would that look like? Four hundred and fifty offenders, many of them disabled, hurrying out the gates and down the highway to evacuate Dickinson, Texas—which is a mandatory order for all the other residents of the town.
But that never happens, of course. Dickinson is a ghost town; ours are the only lives left.
I envy the three nearby men’s prisons that have been evacuated, those inmates safely tucked away on a mat in a crowded gym somewhere far away from Harvey. None of them are worrying about dying any minute.
Later, a woman goes into labor, and the medical staff calls 9-1-1. But 9-1-1 says they can’t come.
“You’re a medical facility,” the dispatcher says. “Deliver the baby.”
A few hours pass, then the short wails of a newborn are heard down the hall—something many of us have not heard in a long time, and may never again. For incarcerated women, it is among the most sentimental of sounds. While the uncertainty of our own lives hangs in the balance, this Hurricane Harvey baby intensifies our sense of how precious life is.
Deidre McDonald, 34, is incarcerated at the Carole Young Complex in Dickinson, Texas, where she is serving a maximum sentence of 30 years for forgery offenses stemming from a drug addiction.