Flooding Forces Evacuation of Over 4,000 Texas Prisoners
by Matt Clarke
Historic flooding along the Brazos River in southeast Texas last year forced the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) to evacuate three facilities near Rosharon that housed more than 4,000 prisoners.
The evacuations began on May 29, 2016, when the Stringfellow and Terrell Units were evacuated, according to TDCJ spokesperson Jason Clark. Those units contained around 2,600 prisoners, most of whom were sent to facilities north of Houston, about 100 miles away. [See: PLN, Nov. 2016, p.63].
An altercation occurred at the Luther Unit when, after the power failed, evacuated prisoners refused to return to their assigned areas. Guards deployed chemical agents on around 50 prisoners who failed to follow orders, Clark said. No guards were injured, he added, and there was “no public safety threat,” but three prisoners were taken to the hospital – one for stitches and two for unidentified reasons.
About 150 trustees were evacuated to the Ramsey Unit which is located on the same large prison farm complex as Stringfellow and Terrell. The current Ramsey Unit was built on higher land after the original flood-damaged Ramsey Unit was demolished. Ironically, the Stringfellow Unit was constructed on the flood-prone site of the original Ramsey Unit. With even greater irony, the trustees evacuated to Ramsey had to be evacuated a second time, along with around 1,800 prisoners housed at the Ramsey Unit, after floodwaters encroached on the facility on June 3, 2016.
“I saw water spewing like a fountain out of the manholes in the sewer system on the day we left,” said one evacuated prisoner.
The removal of the Ramsey prisoners went smoothly as prison buses in convoys of six proceeded under the watchful eyes of what seemed like every law enforcement officer in the counties between Rosharon, 25 miles south of Houston, and the Huntsville area, where the prisoners were taken. Overall, the evacuees praised their treatment despite being housed shoulder-to-shoulder on the floors of gyms and chapels.
“We learned some lessons from the botched evacuations for [Hurricane] Rita [in 2005],” said TDCJ Sgt. Coffield, who supervised the prisoners removed to the Eastham Unit. “They formed a committee and it came up with a plan for future evacuations. We’re just following the plan.”
That plan included providing portable toilets to relieve the strain on existing restrooms and keeping the same staff with the evacuated prisoners throughout the crisis. It also included the provision of books, board games and a few televisions in the evacuation areas. Overall, this helped to minimize the trauma suffered by evacuees at most locations.
There were exceptions, though. Prisoners at the Ferguson Unit were pepper sprayed when a guard who was playing around with a gas launcher in the middle of the night accidentally launched a gas canister inside a gym full of sleeping prisoners. Prisoners evacuated to the Wynn Unit reported that guards prevented them from getting up and moving around – even to relieve themselves – during most of the day, with major disciplinary actions filed against those who had the temerity to use the bathrooms without permission. Further, many of the evacuees were not allowed to take their personal fans with them despite temperatures in the high 90s.
The main buildings at all three prison units were spared any flooding. Some of the outbuildings were flooded, however, and the drinking water systems compromised; thus, prisoners were not returned to their original facilities until June 18, 2016.
Sources: PLN interviews with evacuated prisoners, www.abcl3.com, Houston Chronicle, www.nbcdfw.com