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As subfreezing temperatures plunged Texas into a power crisis this week, inmates and officers at prisons and jails suffered through harsh and often unsanitary environments.
Broken windows and holes in walls let frigid air into unheated cells, extra blankets were quickly taken away, food servings were meager and unflushable toilets overfilled in dorms stuffed with more than 60 men, inmates and their loved ones reported. Corrections officers were kept at the units for days without going home.
“Most of them are so cold that their bodies are numb,” said Nichole, whose husband is a prisoner at the Clemens Unit in Brazoria County. “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.”
February Winter Storm 2021
When will my water come back? How can I get water in the meantime?
We do not know. State and city officials are urging patience — and telling Texans who have running water to boil it. Take whatever measures you need to prepare for several days without water. Officials in Austin, for example, said Feb. 19 that restoring water services would likely be a multiday process for the whole city. We have some resources here, but your best bet to find free water is to check your local media.
Will I get a large energy bill?
You shouldn’t immediately. Texas officials have signed an order temporarily preventing electricity providers from sending bills to residents. The order is a stopgap measure to give officials time to address a spike in some residents' bills. Officials also signed an order to stop utility providers from cutting off service to residents who haven’t paid a bill. Read more here.
How can I get updates?
Sign up for news updates from us by texting “hello” to 512-967-6919 or visiting this page.
I was without power for more than a day. Why are people calling these rolling outages?
When the state’s electrical grid operator began implementing rolling outages at 1:25 a.m. CT on Feb. 15, these were intended to be a temporary measure to deal with an extreme winter event.
Instead, some Texans are going without power for much longer, facing days without electricity instead of the originally planned 45 minutes at a time
The electricity grid was designed to be in high demand during the summer, when Texans crank their air conditioning at home. But some of the energy sources that power the grid during the summer are offline during the winter. So when Texans stayed home during the storm on Sunday and demanded record amounts of electricity, the state’s power grid could not keep up.
Wait, we have our own power grid? Why?
Yes, Texas has its own power grid run by an agency called ERCOT, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas. The history is long, but the short version is: Texas has its own grid to avoid dealing with federal regulations. In 1935, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Federal Power Act, which charged the Federal Power Commission with overseeing interstate electricity sales. But Texas’ utilities do not cross state lines. ERCOT was formed in 1970, in the wake of a major blackout in the Northeast in November 1965, and it was tasked with managing grid reliability in accordance with national standards.
Note that Texas is not all on this same power grid. El Paso is on another grid, as is the upper Panhandle and a chunk of East Texas.
I read online that wind turbines are the reason we lost power. Is that true?
No. The lost wind power makes up only a fraction of the reduction in power-generating capacity that has brought outages to millions of Texans.
An official with the Electric Reliability Council of Texas said on February 16 that 16 gigawatts of renewable energy generation, mostly wind generation, were offline. Nearly double that, 30 gigawatts, had been lost from thermal sources, which includes gas, coal and nuclear energy.
“Texas is a gas state,” said Michael Webber, an energy resources professor at the University of Texas at Austin. “Gas is failing in the most spectacular fashion right now.”
How can I stay warm? How can I help others?
The National Weather Service encourages people to close blinds and curtains, gather in one room if possible and close doors to others, and stuff towels in the cracks under the doors. Wear loose-fitting layers of warm, lightweight clothing. Eating snacks and staying hydrated will help to warm the body up. Some cities are providing warming centers and transportation as needed — find local resources here. If you have resources or are able to offer financial donations, find nonprofits who are helping people here.
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The Tribune is not using her last name because she fears retaliation against her husband.
About a third of the state’s nearly 100 prison units had lost power earlier this week, and the same amount of Texas Department of Criminal Justice lockups had low or no running water Thursday morning, according to agency spokesman Jeremy Desel. But he said all the facilities that lost power still ran on backup power, though generators don’t always run heating systems. Water tankers were also prestaged in areas expected to have water issues, and all units had bottled water, Desel said.
By Thursday afternoon, he said two prison units were without power and relying on generators, and 10 continued to have water issues.
The Clemens Unit where Nichole’s husband is a prisoner had power by Thursday, Desel said.
By Thursday, power was also restored at the McConnell Unit in South Texas, but there was still no running water, according to Roxanna McGree, whose husband is an inmate there.
“All [they] do is just smell the urine and the feces from the inmates,” she said. “There’s no water to flush the toilets, and there’s no way to wash their hands after.”
The department does not provide hand sanitizer to inmates, something that is the subject of an ongoing lawsuit during the coronavirus pandemic. Desel said Friday that water had returned to McConnell by Thursday, though it was not potable.
On Sunday, temperatures across the state began to plunge as a winter storm crossed through the state. As demand for power and heat rose, unregulated supply sources failed during the snow and ice storm. The energy grid operator for most of Texas forced major, dayslong power shutdowns to keep the entire grid from failing. Local news outlets have reported numerous deaths from the storm, and the death toll could rise as more information comes to light after the crisis subsides.
With power failures and often impassable roadways, officers in jails and prisons were kept at lockups for days.
“A lot of staff are basically being held hostage and not allowed to go home,” said Jeff Ormsby, the executive director of Texas prisons' American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees branch. “They’re working a 16- or 24-hour shift and then sent to the visitation room to sleep on a mat for a few hours.”
Ormsby said employees were told they would lose their jobs if they left after days of working to check on their families or get necessary supplies. Desel said officers on site at some prisons were asked to stay to protect the safety and security of the prisons.
“That is normal in emergency situations,” he said Thursday. “They are compensated for all the time they are on the unit and are ensured adequate break and rest time.”
At the Harris County Jail in Houston, 57-year-old inmate Kevin Mack told the Tribune that jail officers working since Sunday were finally allowed to go home Thursday morning. Jason Spencer, a spokesperson for the Harris County Sheriff’s Office, said sleep rooms were set up for those who were kept on because bad road conditions could have kept them from going to and from work. No employees worked more than 16 straight hours, he said.
In jails and prisons, as was the case across the state, a lack of power and heat for days led to a water shortage. But while many Texans in their homes collect snow or rain to refill their toilet tanks, that is not a feasible option in lockups that hold thousands of people.
“You can’t collect rainwater for 9,000 people,” Spencer said.
By Thursday, Spencer said the plumbing was the main issue. Though the two jail buildings that held most of the county’s roughly 9,000 inmates had some low-pressure water, the third building couldn’t flush toilets Thursday morning. Aside from water failures, power has gone in and out but generators have been used as backup power sources.
“[Public works] is doing everything they can but it’s a lot to deal with,” Spencer said. “We feel like they’ve made us a priority and they understand how serious it is to be able to flush toilets in the jail.”
Jails and prisons throughout the state are also dealing with rationed food and delays in medicine or other health care, according to Krish Gundu, executive director of the Texas Jail Project, an inmate advocacy group. She has spoken with inmates in numerous Texas jails this week to assess problems in different counties.
Mack, the Harris County inmate, told the Tribune and the Texas Jail Project Thursday that the eight nonfunctional toilets in a dorm with 67 men was “disgraceful.” And though the toilets are now working again in his area and the jail has handed out limited bottles of water, he said the resource is still sought after.
“Water’s being sold from inmate to inmate now,” he said on the phone. “It’s a commodity.”