In Harvey's Wake

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Amid unverified reports of dangerous water shortages and overflowing sewage at Beaumont prisons after Hurricane Harvey, a Texas congressman is seeking answers from the federal government.

“Due to several reports of alarming conditions at the Beaumont facility, I have inquired with the Federal Bureau of Prisons to express my concern and obtain clarification about what actions are being undertaken to protect the wellbeing of prisoners and staff and to restore the facility to pre-disaster conditions,” U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin, said in a news release issued by Grassroots Leadership, a prisoners’ rights group.

There are three federal and three state prisons in Beaumont, a Southeast Texas city that flooded in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey and lost its water supply for about a week. Voluntary and mandatory evacuations were ordered in parts of the city and its surrounding areas, but prisoners stayed put.

In the days of the water shortage, horror stories from prisoners began to detail overflowing toilets, people defecating in bags, water leaks in buildings and shortages of food and water. The reports are unverified, and prison officials have said conditions remained safe at the prisons.

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The Federal Bureau of Prisons said in a statement last week that there was some flooding at its Beaumont prison complex but not where inmates were housed. The bureau also reported intermittent power outages for a day, but emphasized that the complex was able to run on its own reserve water and had “ample” bottled water and food for inmates and staff.

The Texas Department of Criminal Justice, which runs three state prisons in the city, brought in tanker trucks of water, 270,000 bottles of water and portable toilets during the water shortage, said spokesman Jason Clark. He added that none of the state prisons in Beaumont flooded, which is the factor used in determining evacuation orders.

But advocacy groups tend to believe inmates over prison officials. Grassroots Leadership organizer Jorge Renaud said it’s better to “default on the side of the vulnerable populations.”

“When things rise of the level of someone actually being woken up to say something about a condition ... and is willing to go on the record, it’s usually indicative of quite a few more inside who are actually experiencing the same stuff,” Renaud said.

The Texas Civil Rights Project is going into the prisons this week to interview prisoners, document their stories and observe firsthand what at least part of the facilities look like after the storm, said Zenén Pérez, the group's spokesman. 

Although the Beaumont units kept their inmates during the storm, five state prisons south of Houston were evacuated. Nearly 6,000 inmates from units near the flooding-prone Brazos River were moved to other prison facilities around the state and more than 150 Beaumont parolees were moved into one of the prisons in the same city, Clark said. Two of the evacuated prisons have been repopulated, but about 4,500 inmates still remain sheltered in gyms and open areas of other prisons.

Read related Tribune coverage:

  • Two more Houston-area prisons have been evacuated as flooding continues, bringing the total to five prisons and almost 6,000 inmates shipped off to drier facilities in the region. [Full story]

  • The Federal Emergency Management Agency is offering aid to people displaced by Harvey, but not everyone qualifies for their assistance. For those still in need of help, there are other options. [Full story]

  • Most Texas prisons remain un-air conditioned, but a federal judge's ruling Wednesday called conditions at one prison cruel and unusual and ordered temporary air conditioning for heat-sensitive inmates. [Full story]

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