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Texas Winter Storm Freezes Plumbing, Power and Prisoners

The power failure was preventable. A similar ice storm had caused a major power outage about a decade earlier, and federal regulators had told the Texas Public Utilities Commission (PUC) and Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) that the state’s electrical grid needed to be winterized. The suggestion was ignored, and the feds could do little to change a suggestion into a mandate as the Texas electrical grid is independent of the grids covering the rest of the country and therefore not subject to federal oversight. This left state officials free to choose an unregulated model for the electrical grid with no requirement for winterization or backup generation capacity and the ability to raise prices for electricity a hundred fold when supply is stretched—such as during and immediately after a winter storm.

What about state regulation? The PUC is appointed by the governor. In turn it appoints ERCOT, a group involved in the electrical generation and distribution industry responsible for regulating the power grid. However, as came out after the latest winter storm, many of ERCOT’s members did not live in Texas or even the U.S. and, as a private industry group, ERCOT had no power to enforce its requests.

Due to lack of winterization, 40 gigawatts (GW) of the 75-GW of electrical generation normally available in Texas failed due to cold, icy conditions. Texas Governor Greg Abbott tried to blame clean energy and the Green New Deal for the loss of electric power, but wind and solar generation combined account for only 10 GW of electrical generation in Texas and the state had not implemented the Green New Deal.

In fact, most of the failures were due to cooling water intake pipes being blocked by ice on coal- and nuclear-fired power plants, and natural gas suppliers sending gas to out-of-state customers instead of prioritizing delivery to gas-powered electric generators in Texas as demand spiked during and after the storm.

According to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ), about a third of its 102 prisons lost power during the winter storm. About the same number still had no running water four days later. Not to worry, said TDCJ spokesman Jeremy Desel: All the prisons that lost power still ran on backup power, water tankers were prepared and ready for use, and prisons without running water had bottled water. Desel mentioned that not all of the prisons’ heating systems were hooked up to backup power, but he should have mentioned that backup generators run the fence lighting and emergency lighting in most prisons and little else.

In 33 years of incarceration in TDCJ, this writer has never experienced a TDCJ prison in which generators supplied power to the heating system or the exhaust ventilation system, which is crucial when, for instance, a hurricane or high power demand causes loss of power in the sweltering Texas summer. Desel also failed to mention that a bottle or two of water distributed daily to prisoners could not adequately meet hydration needs, much less be used to shower, brush teeth, or flush feces-filed toilets. Like the PUC and ERCOT, the state’s criminal justice department was another entity that knew the winter storm emergency would eventually happen and apparently did little or nothing to prepare for it.

Worse, as the winter storm bore down on Texas, TDCJ guards began confiscating extra blankets. Soon after the storm hit, prison officials falsely told families of prisoners that additional blankets were being handed out. At the Ramsey Unit, a second blanket was handed out, the day after the heating and power were restored. Conditions were even worse at other prisons.

“Most of them are so cold that their bodies are numb,” Nichole, whose husband is incarcerated at the Clemens Unit in Brazoria County, told The Texas Tribune. “A lot of them fear to fall asleep because they think they’re going to freeze. They don’t think they’re going to wake up.”

It was not a baseless concern. During the storm and freeze, a young boy froze to death in his bed in Conroe, about 50 miles north of the Clemens Unit.

Even after power was restored to the McConnell Unit in Beeville—over four days after it went out—there was no running water.

“All [they] do is just smell the urine and the feces from the inmates,” Roxanna McGree, whose husband is incarcerated there, told the Tribune. “There’s no water to flush the toilets, and there’s no way to wash their hands after.”

TDCJ guards also suffered due to the lack of power and water and a requirement that they remain at the prison until the crisis was over. Some staff wanted to go home and check on their homes and families but were told that it would cost them their jobs.

“A lot of staff are basically being held hostage and not allowed to go home. They’re working 16- or 24-hour shifts and then sent to the visitation room to sleep on a mat for a few hours,” according to Jeff Ormsby, executive director of the branch of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees serving Texas prisons. “The staff gets double-whammied, they’re here at work freezing—just like the inmates are—and then they have to worry about their families at home.”

“This is normal in emergency situations,” said Desel. “They are compensated for all the time they are on the unit and are ensured adequate break and rest time.”

The same icy roads that made it difficult for jail and prison guards to commute to work complicated the resupply of jails and prisons. This led to food rationing and delayed receipt of medication and health care, reported Krish Gundu, executive director of the prisoner advocacy organization Texas Jail Project.

The situation was dire in the Harris County Jail in Houston. Bursting at the seams with over 9,000 prisoner despite calls by the sheriff to release nonviolent prisoners in response to the pandemic, the jail lost power and water and required some guards to remain at work for five days. Bottled water was so scarce that prisoners were selling it to each other as a commodity.

Harris County jail prisoner Finis Prendergast, 42, told HuffPost that his breakfast was a bite-size muffin and three tiny packets of peanut butter and jelly. “We’re in here freezing to death and starving,” he said.

Victoria County Jail prisoner Daune Waddy, 35, told NBC News his 24-man dorm was so rancid from full toilets that prisoners were using the showers as urinals. He complained of receiving only a single bottle of water a day and noted that there were neither cleaning supplies nor any provision for showering. 


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