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Texas Prisons are Fire Traps

by Ed Lyon

With almost 122,000 prisoners, Texas has the largest state prison system in the U.S. According to a report on January 9, 2023, it appears to be the most fire prone system, as well.

Fire and safety spending by the state Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) rose from $2.9 million for fiscal year 2020 to $8.6 million the next, and it rose again for the 2022-2023 to $14.3 million. TDCJ officials are currently begging the state legislature to more than double the current bi-yearly fire and safety budget to $30 million.

Yet for decades TDCJ has pooh-poohed fire safety concerns in its prisons. In 2012 the State Fire Marshal discovered 237 buildings in the prison system that were required to have fire alarms but did not. Others had inoperative alarms waiting for repairs. In a 2019 inspection, the State Fire Marshal uncovered over 3,000 fire safety violations.

At the beginning of 2023, fire safety violations had skyrocketed to more than 8,000 violations. Fires are common in TDCJ’s close-custody and restrictive-custody housing areas. Since these prisoners seldom are allowed out of their cells, not as many guards are needed – allegedly. But even if that’s true, staff preparedness has taken a hit from a high guard turnover rate that has reached 40.9%. [See: PLN, Jan. 2023, p.31.]

When the needs of restrictive-custody prisoners are not met, they frequently start fires to gain attention – knowing there is a shortage of guards to respond. Jacinto De La Garza, 26, self-immolated in his cell at the Gib Lewis Unit on November 11, 2021, though TDCJ attributed his death to a heart attack suffered during the blaze.

In March 2022, Damien Bryant, 31, died in a fire in his cell at Beto Unit. In July 2022, James Salazar, 42, burned to death in his cell at Amarillo’s Clements Unit. That same month, Andre Ortiz, 37, died the same way at Coffield Unit.

As is too often the case in prison, interest in this decades-old problem has only begun to manifest itself since media reports began to circulate. “The state of safety in our prison system is just abysmal,” said Texas A&M University’s Carlee Purdum, who studies mass incarceration.

Sources: Houston Chronicle, The Marshall Project