A fire erupted at the Texas State Penitentiary in Huntsville early on August 25, 2023, forcing the state Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) to evacuate 655 prisoners – 400 of whom had to be relocated to other prisons due to the extent of the damage.
Video footage from the scene captured flames and smoke billowing from the lockup, which is colloquially referred to as the “Walls Unit” for its distinctive red brick construction. TDCJ reported that the fire started in a cell block shortly before 2:30 a.m. Numerous firefighting units, including the Huntsville Fire Department, responded to combat the fire at the lockup in downtown Huntsville, off 11th Street and Avenue I.
TDCJ said all the evacuated prisoners were safely led to a secure area within the prison compound. No injuries were reported, and a comprehensive headcount found no missing prisoners. TDCJ Director of Communications Amanda Hernandez stated, “Our immediate concern is assessing the extent of the damage and ensuring the safety of all individuals involved. If the need arises, we are fully prepared to facilitate transfers to other correctional facilities across the state.”
But in a subsequent update later that day, a TDCJ spokesperson disclosed that approximately 400 prisoners would not be able to return to their cells and would be relocated to various other state lockups. They were apparently put “on the chain” immediately, with transfers scheduled for the same day.
Video indicated lingering smoke still rising from the structure around 7:00 a.m., as firefighters worked to quell the flames. Although the Huntsville Fire Department declared the fire was contained, firefighting units continued efforts to extinguish residual small fires within the premises.
Radio transmissions at the onset of the blaze declared that “[e]mergency units have been dispatched to the Walls Unit. Smoke is emerging from the west building, specifically the A picket — a 4-story cell block. Evacuation procedures are underway.”
An additional message from officials stated, “Ladder 91 – I have flames breaking through the roof.” Witnesses reported that someone – ostensibly a guard – attempted to re-enter the burning building before ultimately retreating due to overwhelming smoke.
TDCJ officials said the primary areas of damage were in the attic of the west building, along with the attic and third floor of the administration building. Aerial footage shot by a local news station confirmed severe roof damage was inflicted by the blaze. An investigation led by the State Fire Marshal’s Office was underway to determine the cause.
The 174-year-old prison held about 1,600 prisoners, TDCJ said, though its website said the penitentiary was designed to incarcerate more than 1,700 men. They are kept by a workforce of 446 employees, including around 330 in security roles.
The state’s execution chamber is at the Walls Unit. TDCJ rushed to reassure the public that an upcoming scheduled execution in October would not be impacted by the fire.
Sources: Houston Chronicle, KTRK
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