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Hurricane Threat Forces Texas Prison Evacuations, Damage Worsens Overcrowding

As Rita churned westward through the Gulf of Mexico, at times a monstrous Category 5 hurricane with wind speeds of 175 mph, officials with the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) ordered the evacuation of entire prisons in coastal and low-lying areas of Southeast Texas. More than 9,000 prisoners were ultimately evacuated, but thousands more were left in harms way. Damage from Rita also left two prisons closed indefinitely, exacerbating overcrowding in a system already bursting at the seams.

The massive relocation effort began in the pre-dawn hours of Wednesday, September 21, 2005, two days before the hurricanes expected landfall. Prison officials hoped the job could be completed in a single day, but TDCJs fleet of 85 buses became mired in traffic as 1.8 million Texas and Louisiana residents--fearing a repeat of the devastation caused in New Orleans by hurricane Katrina--flooded evacuation routes designed for far fewer people. Once the prisoners arrived at prisons further inland, they were housed in gymnasiums, chapels, dayrooms, and other makeshift dormitories.

On September 22, prison officials were still scrambling to complete the relocations. Mandatory evacuation orders had been issued for a number of Texas coastal counties, including Brazoria County, where at least 6 state prisons are located.

Yet only 3 were evacuated. Buses showed up at the Ramsey One Unit to relocate its approximately 1,800 prisoners early Thursday morning. But just as prisoners began filing out to the buses, the evacuation was abruptly canceled. Ritas projected path had shifted to the east, from the Houston-Galveston area to the Beaumont area. The buses then made a mad dash to remove the prisoners in Beaumont. Two units there, Gist and LeBlanc, were completely evacuated, while 2,800 prisoners at the maximum-security Stiles Unit rode out the storm.

Prison officials contend their decision to evacuate only certain prisons was based on building composition and location. Units being evacuated are those in more coastal areas, said Michelle Lyons, spokeswoman for TDCJ. We also consider the makeup of buildings. Some are metal and can withstand high winds, and others are not. While there is some truth to this, it appears the decisions were made out of necessity due to poor preparation and a late start rather than rational planning.

Fortunately for the prisoners in Brazoria County, they experienced only gale-force winds and intermittent heavy rain as Rita continued on her predicted path. They remained locked in their cells, however, because the prisons were operating on skeleton crews since most of the guards and other employees chose to heed the mandatory evacuation orders and fled to the safety of higher ground with their families.

Prisoners at the Stiles unit also experienced some discomfort. During and shortly after the hurricane, the prisoners were served cold cuts, military-style prepared meals, and bottled water. They were forced to use portable toilets until water and sewer services were restored.

Another 5,665 federal prisoners, housed in 4 separate units at the federal prison complex in Beaumont, were similarly set to weather the tempest but were apparently evacuated at the last minute. One federal prisoner reported that prisoners at the complex were moved from 2:00 a.m. Friday morning through Sunday evening in what he called the largest evacuation ever conducted by the Bureau of Prisons.

The prisoners were taken to Yazoo City, Mississippi, where they spent the entire first week with no electricity, no air conditioning, no ventilation, and no water. It was quite hellish, the prisoner said. Everyone broke out in a rash from head to toe, he continued. For a week, the prisoners were fed once a day with peanut butter and jelly packs. They had no water for flushing for several days, then enough to flush just once a day. Their property was abandoned in Beaumont, and prison officials told them they would probably never see it again.

Many other prisoners were also relocated in anticipation of hurricane Rita. Louisiana moved 1,700 state prisoners to higher ground, while the Galveston County, Texas, jail transferred 875 prisoners. Numerous other small city and county jails likely evacuated hundreds more.

Stiles Unit suffered only minor damage to its perimeter fence and an unoccupied dormitory. But the Gist and LeBlanc Units sustained major damage and will be closed indefinitely. Top prison officials, speaking privately, said they expect the damage to run in the millions of dollars and that repairs could take months.

With two prisons down, overcrowding has reached crisis proportions in the already packed system. On September 29, 2005, TDCJ was running at 97% capacity with roughly 150,500 prisoners, according to prison officials. Several maximum-security prisons were reportedly 100% full, while some were even operating at 102% capacity.

Its put a crunch on the system, thats for sure, said state Senator John Whitmire (D-Houston), chairman of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, which oversees Texas prisons. We put money in the budget to lease about 6,000 beds over the next 2 years. This means well probably spend that sooner than we counted on. And that doesnt include whatever the cost will be to repair the damaged units.

In spring 2005, Texas legislators had allocated $19.9 million for leased bed space in fiscal year 2005-06, and $43.8 million for 2006-07. Governor Rick Perry later vetoed all but $10 million for leased beds in the current year. On October 4, 2005, TDCJ had 826 prisoners in leased beds in county jails and privately operated jails, compared with just 600 a few weeks earlier.

Kathy Walt, spokeswoman for Governor Perry, said state officials wont make any decisions until they receive a final assessment. It may be well have to make provisions for additional contracted beds, or it could be well have to consider budget execution authority to allow TDCJ to have additional funds available, she said. Well be looking at all options. But right now we dont know what may or not be needed.

Senator Whitmire said the real problem is too many people in prison. Obviously, this gets us back to the issue of the thousands of people we have in prison beds who probably dont need to be there, when they should be in community-based programs instead, he said. This issue was coming up when the system filled. The hurricane has just caused that to happen sooner rather than later.

Sources: Austin American-Statesman, Galveston Daily News, Austin News 8, Houston Chronicle, Beaumont Enterprise

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