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Prisoners Not Evacuated, Parolees Rounded Up as Hurricanes Hit

On September 8, 2008, Texas Governor Rick Perry issued a disaster declaration for 88 counties as Hurricane Ike bore down on the Texas coastline.

The 900-mile wide storm, with winds in excess of 100 mph “ now in the Gulf of Mexico and making its approach toward our coast,” Perry said. “The next few days will be crucial for residents to follow the direction of local leaders and to take the necessary steps to protect themselves and their families.”

As Ike passed over the warm waters of the Gulf it was expected to reach Category 3 conditions of 150 mph winds with a storm surge of up to 25 feet. Officials in Brazoria County, which is located less than 50 miles from the coast, issued mandatory evacuation orders to local residents. However, several prison units holding thousands of Texas Dept. of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) prisoners in Brazoria County were not evacuated.

Prisoners at the Ramsey I Unit sat helpless before the storm hit. “They turned the electricity off two days before the storm got there and it stayed off for five days,” TDCJ prisoner Jesus Val Verde stated in an interview with PLN. “There was no electricity for the fans so no air was circulating. They turned off the water too and only turned it on twice a day so we could flush our toilets and fill our drinking containers. We should have been evacuated.”

Prisoners at the LeBlanc Unit, located further down the coast, also had to weather Hurricane Ike. Over 130 prisoners later filed suit because they were not evacuated before the storm struck. They argued that their Eighth Amendment rights were violated when they were forced to drink salt-contaminated water for several days; they also complained of psychological trauma caused by intense, prolonged fear for their lives caused by having to ride out the hurricane.

On December 14, 2008, the TDCJ posted a statement on its website that the “Stiles, Gist and LeBlanc facilities were notified to boil water for a short time after the city’s water system was inundated with salt water from the storm surge.” What prison officials apparently hoped the public wouldn’t realize was that prisoners do not have the equipment to boil water.

Initially all of the prisoners’ claims were included in one case filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Texas, but federal Magistrate Judge Keith Giblin ordered the cases to be handled separately, citing security concerns if all the prisoners had to appear in court at the same time. He was also troubled that the prisoners planned to represent themselves – but apparently not troubled enough to appoint counsel for them.

The TDCJ continued its propaganda efforts with an article in the San Marcos Daily Record describing how over 1,300 prisoners from the Stevenson Unit in Cuero were evacuated to the McConnell Unit in Beeville and the Connally Unit in Kenedy. In reality, the McConnell Unit is located closer to the coast than Stevenson. None of the three units were affected by the storm.

Galveston, just up the road from the Ramsey Unit, took a direct hit from Hurricane Ike. Flood waters rose to 7 feet in the district that included the county jail. Galveston County Sheriff Gean Leonard disregarded evacuation orders and left more than 1,000 prisoners locked inside the one-story facility, located less than a mile from the coastline.

Just days earlier, Galveston’s city manager warned residents that remaining in the city was unsafe, and the National Weather Service predicted that anyone taking shelter in one-story buildings faced almost “certain death.”

The jail operated on a skeleton crew, as most of the staff had been evacuated. The electricity went out and water was scarce as prisoners sat in fear for their lives.

“Mom. I’m worried, scared and hungry,” one jail prisoner told his mother. “All of us are here cramped into this little room on the first floor. The flood waters are rising and we’re not going to evacuate.”

That prisoner’s mother said officials had abandoned efforts to communicate with people on the outside. “I called but they’re not answering the phones. It’s ludicrous they left the inmates there.”

In the storm’s aftermath, Dudley Anderson, the architect who designed the county jail, tried to work with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in an effort to install emergency generators at the facility.

“We’ve been trying to get some power hooked up inside the justice center ... [but] FEMA won’t turn loose of the generators until they inspect the area themselves,” said Anderson.
“They keep saying that will be tomorrow. I’ve heard that for days.”

Anderson also stated that he had talked to someone from FEMA who “seemed to think we were asking for too much.” He noted that the weather and the prisoners were the only ones cooperating with his efforts to restore power at the jail. The prisoners were helping him do the work, and the storm had shrunk to only 600 miles wide when it hit shore.

According to Anderson, poor air circulation at the jail due to no electricity could contribute to the growth of mold and mildew, and worsen the existing problems of lack of water and sanitation. For several days prisoners were not allowed to wash their hands or take a shower while they slept on mattresses less than a foot apart.

“They’re just sitting there, they’re desperate, it’s disease waiting to happen,” said Shirley Rutledge, whose son was held at the jail.

At least 22 Galveston jail prisoners filed pro se lawsuits in state district court, raising claims of deplorable conditions and insufficient drinking water. However, the Texas Commission on Jail Standards had toured the facility approximately ten days after Hurricane Ike, and noticed no problems. “I didn’t find anything that put the inmates in harm’s way,” stated Adan Munoz, the Commission’s executive director.

Further inland, police in Austin and San Antonio went from shelter to shelter rounding up released sex offenders on parole who had been displaced by Hurricane Ike. Austin police evicted three sex offenders staying at shelters with 1,300 other people.

“I have no idea where they went [after being put out] but they’re not allowed to come back,” said Austin police detective James Mason.

Matt Simpson, a policy strategist for the Texas chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, called the sex offender eviction policy “mystifying,” and observed that “[i]t’s the opposite of keeping track of people.”

San Antonio rounded up nine sex offenders and sent them to an undisclosed facility. Statewide, about 18 sex offenders were identified at evacuation shelters and another 1,000 sex offenders on parole were sent to prisons and halfway houses.

Back on the Gulf coast, state prison officials scrambled to deal with the extensive damage done to the TDCJ’s main hospital. The University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB) is responsible for the medical treatment of 80 percent of Texas prisoners. The main hospital, with 365 beds, is located only several hundred yards from the Galveston coastline.

On November 13, 2008, two months after Hurricane Ike, UTMB officials were still expressing concerns about security as hundreds of prisoners would have to receive treatment in local hospitals while repairs were made.

“It creates a real challenge,” said TDCJ executive director Brad Livingston. “It goes without saying that security risks go up.” Sen. John Whitmire, who chairs the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, expressed similar worries. “I also have a concern about having many violent inmates in public hospitals around the state,” he said. “It’s a very unhealthy situation.” But a perfectly predictable one since Galveston has been the site of devastating hurricanes since at least 1900 when a hurricane demolished the city and killed between 8,000 and 12,000 residents, making it the deadliest natural disaster in United States history.

To make matters worse, Livingston and UTMB officials learned on November 12, 2008 that 3,800 UTMB employees would be laid off as a result of the estimated $710 million in damages to the hospital. Flood waters reached up to 8 feet in some of the buildings. The hospital’s kitchen, blood bank and radiology department were almost totally destroyed.
The University of Texas Board of Regents said there would be no money to operate the facility for at least three months, and FEMA money could not be used for wages, benefits or operating expenses.

To be fair, it should be noted that Texas is not the only state to endanger its prisoners during natural disasters. On June 12, 2008, over 360 female prisoners in Linn County, Iowa – and the jail guards supervising them – were unsure if they would escape rapidly rising flood waters from the Cedar River.

The Linn County Jail, which is located on May’s Island, was being pounded by torrential rain. Earlier that morning, before the evacuation, prisoner Melanie Willits had been watching from a third floor window as flood waters covered the Third Avenue Bridge. She and other prisoners were evacuated by bus.

“When we turned from the jail onto the bridge, I thought it was over,” Willits told The Gazette newspaper. “At first there was no sound, but as the water came into the bus, it felt as though the bus was floating away. Everybody freaked.”

Sheriff Don Zeller insisted that the situation was under control and that the jail prisoners had been moved in a timely fashion.

Prisoner Alicia Echols strongly disagreed. “They moved the mattresses and cars before us,” she said angrily. “They put shackles on us and wristbands on us so they could identify the bodies if we drowned. That’s what they told us.”

“We weren’t allowed to use phones or watch the news,” Willits added. She said jail officials had falsely told her family that she and other prisoners were moved two days earlier, on June 10. They learned the truth when they saw YouTube videos of the evacuation taking place on June 12.

In Louisiana, the intensity and destructive force of Hurricane Ike caused many to forget that some prisoners were still suffering from the effects of Hurricane Gustav, which had hit the state a few weeks earlier. Prisoners from Terrebonne Parish had been evacuated to the State Penitentiary at Angola when Gustav passed through. The sheer size of Hurricane Ike prevented their return, even though the storm was going to make landfall in Texas.

The 500 jail evacuees who were sent to Angola were given mandatory crew cuts when they arrived, and were housed separately from state prisoners. “They’re pretty shocked when they come here,” remarked Angola Warden Burl Cain. “You get treated just like a prisoner.”

Cain said his biggest regret was that he didn’t get to put the evacuated prisoners to work “building fences and pushing hoes.” Never mind the fact that they included pre-trial detainees who had yet to be convicted, and thus could not legally be forced to work.

PLN has previously reported on the devastating effects of Hurricane Katrina on prisoners in New Orleans [PLN, April 2007, p.1; May 2007, p.18], and on a lawsuit filed by federal prisoners who were evacuated but later returned to work under unsanitary and oppressive conditions at a UNICOR factory in Beaumont, Texas following Hurricane Rita [PLN, July 2009, p.21].

A separate Federal Tort Claims Act suit was filed on January 9, 2008 by more than 400 prisoners who were not evacuated from USP Beaumont during Hurricane Rita. The lawsuit alleges that federal prison officials were negligent in failing to evacuate the facility, and prisoners suffered as a result due to the lack of electricity, plumbing, food, water, medical care and sanitation. On June 12, 2009, a magistrate judge recommended that the lawsuit be dismissed due to lack of subject-matter jurisdiction. The district court has not yet ruled on that recommendation. See: Spotts v. United States, U.S.D.C. (E.D. Tex.), Case No. 1:08-cv-00376-RC-ESH.

Apparently, natural disasters such as hurricanes and floods, combined with callous prison and jail officials who disregard the safety of vulnerable prisoners, can create a perfectly dangerous storm.

Sources: Associated Press, Austin American Statesman, Daily Comet, Dallas Morning News, Gazette Online, Houston Chronicle, Prison News Network, San Antonio Express News, San Marcos Daily Record,, Galveston Daily News, Houston Press,

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