This story is the sixth piece in "America's Toxic Prisons," an investigative, collaborative series between Truthout and Earth Island Journal. This series dives deeply into the intersection between mass incarceration and environmental justice.
A set of emails obtained by Truthout and Earth Island Journal describe nightmarish conditions inside the federal prison complex in Beaumont, Texas, after flooding last week cut off power -- including air-conditioning -- and the water supply. The emails were sent via Corrlinks, an email system used by federal prisoners.
The emails reveal morbid conditions endured by prisoners living under lockdown after Hurricane Harvey, then downgraded to a tropical depression, dropped 35 inches of rain on the area. Truthout redacted identifying information due to the danger of retaliation by prison officials. Since the storm, the prisoners have been limited to five emails and five short phone calls per person for the month.
Multiple prisoners and their relatives detailed how the lack of running water caused some men to defecate in bags, and others to drink contaminated toilet water. Many say they have seen men lose consciousness in the units, succumbing to the extreme heat and putrid fumes wafting through the cellblocks from bags of excrement, non-flushable Porta-Potties and backed-up toilets, as well as the stench of the men's unwashed bodies after having not showered in more than 10 days. According to their messages, they have also been in need of clean laundry.
Prisoners described receiving only two bottles of water a day as temperatures reached close to 100 degrees, and said that prison officials have been turning the water on once a day to flush toilets, while warning the men not to drink the visibly contaminated water.
"WE ARE LIVING IN DEPLORABLE CONDITIONS IN OUR CELLS WITH TWO BOTTLES OF WATER QA DAY NO TOILET OUR OUR SHIT IS GAGGIN US AND WE HAVE NO VENTILLATION BUT WE ARE ALIVE BARELY," wrote one prisoner via email in a desperate plea for help.
Others said they had gone without a hot meal after Harvey made its second landfall over Beaumont, receiving only peanut butter and jelly, and bologna sandwiches twice a day. Further, the men told their relatives they have been in desperate need of medical care, describing prisoners with staph infections, rashes and heat-related illnesses going untreated.
Prisoners at the medium-security unit updated their relatives Thursday, however, that they had finally gotten showers, and some said they received their first hot meal.
One prisoner said in an email that, during the storm, his unit "leaked EVERYWHERE, in peoples rooms all in the TV room, the bathroom. now mold has set in. in leaked in the chow hall and the ceiling fell in. this place is really falling apart."
Many prisoners described frustrations with media coverage about the conditions in the prison, as well as what prison officials have been claiming. One man wrote:
"...they just said on the news that ppl folks been caqlling but they said what we was saying was a lie and that we are getting proper food and fluids which is some bs,but the news never asked us anything,they apparently went with what the warden siad and left it at that.god got us and honest to truth these folks know they are wrong but at the sametime they ahve to answer to god..."
Another told his loved one in an email that the "frustration really sets in when we hear 5 diff stories from diff 'officials' here. Nobody can just tell the real truth, and if they think they are then someone comes right behind them with a different story."
The men inside said that tension is running high not only between prisoners themselves, but between prisoners and guards amid an ongoing lockdown in which prisoners are restricted to their cells.
The Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) released the following statement to Truthout:
"There have not been any inmate fatalities as a result of Hurricane Harvey or otherwise at FCC [federal correctional complex] Beaumont. ... Due to limited water in the city of Beaumont, the Federal Correctional Complex began using its own water reserves to operate the complex last Thursday, as noted on our public website. Inmates continue to receive bottled water and milk for drinking."
BOP officials also stated that no prisoners have been hospitalized due to conditions there and that prisoners have "24-hour access to medical coverage in Beaumont."
More than 120,000 residents of the city of Beaumont went without drinking water until this week after Harvey's flooding disrupted the city's water supply.
Ruth DeJob* and Rachel Villalobos are just two of the many relatives Truthout spoke with who have been receiving messages from their loved ones inside the federal complex. They, too, have been living a nightmare since Harvey made its second landfall. Barely able to sleep, they're up at 4 or 5 am, posting updates and sharing information to a closed Facebook group DeJob created for family members of prisoners incarcerated in Beaumont.
DeJob has been meticulously collecting and collating screenshots of emails from federal prisoners in Beaumont passed to her by their wives and relatives, which she allowed Truthout to review and publish after redacting identifying information.
Villalobos says her husband and other prisoners became so dehydrated that they opted to defecate into a trash bag in order to conserve the discolored water that is meant to be used only to flush the toilet in their unit. Instead, they drank it. It's unclear to what extent the men ingested Harvey's toxic floodwaters, or how badly the prison camp's water system was compromised, but Villalobos' husband told her he'd seen men faint after drinking the water.
"I tried to explain about the bacteria in the water, and they don't care at this moment, and to me what came to mind is they're on survival mode," Villalobos told Truthout. "He's telling me that when he wakes up in the morning, his eyelids are sticking to his eyeballs like he has no moisture. His tongue is sticking to the top of his mouth."
Villalobos also said her husband described floodwater seeping into his unit, and other relatives described ankle-high water in the prisoners' cells. Family members say the men should have been evacuated, and want more humane accommodations made.
"It's inhumane what they're doing," DeJob told Truthout. "What we're asking for is for [the BOP] to change the living situation that they have them in. To give them the things that are needed ... We're not asking for them to be treated differently than anyone who lost everything in Harvey ... We just want them to be treated fairly, as a human should be treated."
DeJob met up with a few of the wives from her Facebook group Tuesday night at the Anointing Power and Glory church in Dallas, Texas, which provides a prison ministry service for family members and prisoners inside several area prisons. In addition to working with the women to collect messages from prisoners, she is hoping to organize a protest at the regional BOP office in Grand Prairie, and solicit legal help.
"My husband is not a person to complain at all. He doesn't like me worrying. I have a lot of stuff that I'm worried about. So, him telling me, 'Get us help now. Call my lawyer' -- him telling me about the conditions he was in -- I knew it was bad because he likes keeping a lot of things from me so I won't stress," Villalobos says. "If it was minor he would have kept it from me."
While DeJob and Villalobos are primarily focused on the federal complex in Beaumont, they are also working with wives and relatives of men held in three state-run prison units in Beaumont, operated by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ), that were not evacuated.
TDCJ Prisoner-Evacuees Moved Into Unconstitutional Conditions
TDCJ officials chose not to evacuate prisoners at three state prison units in Beaumont: Stiles, Gist and LeBlanc, instead telling the Houston Chronicle that the agency transferred in 90 officers from elsewhere in the state to supplement staff levels there.
"We stacked up in here like sardines."
Texas Correctional Employees Union president Lance Lowry, however, told the Houston Chronicle that several hundred guards were unable to get to their units after flooding, leaving staff levels critically low -- a claim disputed by TDCJ spokesman Jason Clark.
Relatives told Truthout conditions at the state prison units were similar to those at the federal complex, with prisoners going without showers or clean laundry and only receiving two bottles of water a day on top of dealing with sewage problems.
Clifton Cloer, a prisoner at the Stiles Unit, told his wife that he was wading through knee-high floodwater in his first-floor cell just after the storm hit. By Monday, he told her the water had receded to his calves.
"At this point in time, as of 9 pm [Monday], there was still water in their cells, and there's sewage and stuff that's backing up due to their not [being] able to use the Porta-Potties that were brought in because they were told they were just for correctional officers," Cloer's wife Lindsey Disheroon told Truthout.
TDCJ spokesman Clark refuted Cloer's claim, telling Truthout in an email that he visited the prison on Sunday and that "there was no water inside the unit." He did not respond to other questions regarding conditions at other TDCJ units.
Before Harvey made its first landfall, TDCJ evacuated 5,900 prisoners from at least five units close to the Brazos River in the cities of Rosharon and Richmond and took them to prisons with gyms and other multipurpose rooms that could provide extra space. TDCJ also moved more than 400 parolees from halfway houses in the flood zone.
A prisoner at the Eastham Unit -- where evacuees were transferred -- says the influx of men, many of whom are elderly, has caused problems, including water rationing.
"They cut the water off on us," said William Wells, a prisoner there, during a phone interview. "So, we in the cell with the water off, and some of the toilets got feces in them, and it was real bad."
"You can't fix one dangerous situation with one that has already been ruled unconstitutional."
Wells told Truthout a group of about 500 prisoner-evacuees were being held in the unit's north and south gyms, and the men on the north end of the prison didn't have "two feet of space" to move around or put their belongings in. He said the prison was experiencing overcrowding in other ways, with access to outside recreation as well as to air-conditioned respite areas being disrupted. (A majority of TDCJ units lack air-conditioning in cellblock areas.)
"We stacked up in here like sardines," Wells said. He did, however, praise officials for opening up the prison commissary (store) on Sunday for the evacuees.
Even before Harvey, the conditions at Eastham became the subject of the fifth article in this investigative series, after Wells and other prisoners there filed federal complaints arguing that they must drink copious amounts of water tainted with lead and copper to cope with the deadly summer heat in their cellblocks.
Meanwhile, 1,000 other TDCJ prisoners in the flood zone were transferred to the Wallace Pack Unit in Navasota, Texas, that US District Judge Keith Ellison recently ruled was dangerously hot for vulnerable prisoners with medical conditions, and the site of other investigations in this series. Eastham prisoners closely modeled their complaints on the landmark Pack case.
According to civil rights attorney Jeff Edwards, about 600 of the prisoners transferred from the Stringfellow Unit may be vulnerable to extreme heat -- a potential violation of Judge Ellison's emergency order to move about 1,000 heat-sensitive prisoners to units with air-conditioned cellblocks.
"You can't fix one dangerous situation with one that has already been ruled unconstitutional," Edwards told the Houston Chronicle.
Another attorney with the Prisoners Legal Advocacy Network is preparing to issue a legal advisement to the BOP Southcentral regional director and TDCJ in an effort to eventually serve a formal notice of credible reports of unconstitutional conditions being widely reported in Texas prisons in the aftermath of Harvey.
Meanwhile, conditions deteriorated at the federal and state prison units, some -- but not all -- county jails in the flood zone were evacuated.
Brandon Wood, executive director of the Texas Commission on Jail Standards, told Truthout that wardens at four county jails -- Aransas, Goliad, Lavaca and Wharton -- voluntarily evacuated their prisoners before Harvey made landfall. Prisoners in all but the Aransas County Jail, which sustained damage, have since been returned.
While Wood emphasized that county jails must have emergency plans in place for disaster, others in the flood zone were not evacuated. For instance, Deputy Jesus Saenz told Truthout that the Harris County Sheriff's Office walked prisoners from its smaller jail unit over to another part of its jail complex as floodwater began to breach it during Harvey's initial landfall over Houston.
Harvey Underscores Need for Environmental Justice Behind Bars
What is often forgotten is that many prison populations are also fenceline communities.
Even before Harvey, Truthout and Earth Island Journal revealed pervasive water contamination at prisons across the US. Our first investigation revealed that federal and state agencies brought 1,149 informal actions and 78 formal actions against regulated prisons, jails and detention centers during the past five years under the Safe Drinking Water Act, according to a dataset of federal violations from the Environmental Protection Agency. More than any other federal environmental law, regulators have found US prisons in violation of standards related to drinking water.
The prisoners exposed to Harvey's toxic waters join the ranks of others in Texas -- like the elderly prisoners at Wallace Pack who drank arsenic-laced water for more than 10 years -- and across the US who are being exposed to contaminated water on a daily basis.
"When I heard about them drinking that water -- I know what can happen to your body. I went to school for that health stuff, and I know a lot, and it's just, they don't understand. It's scary, because the littlest thing could make you go bad, make your insides, your health, your body, go down," Villalobos, who works at a family clinic, told Truthout.
Her husband's exposure to Harvey's floodwaters recalls the grisly tales told by prisoners after Hurricane Katrina, when the New Orleans Sheriff's Department abandoned more than 600 prisoners in the city's jail, the Orleans Parish Prison (OPP) compound, for several days without food or water as toxic and sewage-tainted floodwaters reached chest level on the first-floor cells. While prison officials claim no deaths occurred at OPP during the storm and subsequent evacuation, prisoners and deputies told the American Civil Liberties Union they witnessed several deaths.
Only 12 years later, Harvey has again amplified issues of environmental justice, with its particularly toxic floodwater-stew, brimming with chemicals and raw sewage from more than 36 industrial spills and more than 80 wastewater system spills, according to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. Again, the storm's impacts are being felt hardest by fenceline communities of color, disproportionately low-income, who live in the shadow of the Houston area's many fossil fuel refineries and industrial facilities.
"Hurricane Harvey is devastating for everyone, not just our loved ones that are incarcerated."
What is often forgotten, however, is that many prison populations are also fenceline communities. Disproportionately Black and poor, Beaumont's prisoners also live in the shadow of industrial facilities along the Sabine Lake, including an Exxon petrochemical refinery damaged by Harvey. According to the Washington Post, the storm's damage caused the plant to release 1,312.84 pounds of sulfur dioxide -- an amount well over the limit allowed by Exxon's permits.
The prisoners on lockdown in Beaumont, like the residents outside, are inhaling the toxic fumes of sulfur dioxide and raw sewage, but with one important difference: Prisoners cannot voluntarily move or receive aid in the form of donations or services, even from those who want to help them.
As Truthout and Earth Island Journal have previously reported, human-caused climate disruption is likely to continue to take the lives of prisoners living without air-conditioning, as it brings more and intensifying heat waves across the US south. Likewise, as ocean levels rise and storms intensify, more toxic floodwaters will seep into prison walls -- and threaten the human lives behind them.
The double-barreled storms of Harvey -- and now Irma -- make clear that prisoner advocates, civil rights activists and environmental advocates must work collectively to confront the injustices playing out inside prisons.
"The whole Hurricane Harvey situation is devastating for everyone that's around there, not just our loved ones that are incarcerated, but for everyone that was affected, even people that lost loved ones that live nowhere near there," DeJob told Truthout. "I have hope that my husband will be home. These people lost a loved one that's not going to come home."
*Ruth's name was changed at her request to protect her identity. She fears her husband may be identified and retaliated against. She gave Truthout and Earth Island Journal consent to publish her picture, however.
This report is part of a collaborative series on the environment and mass incarceration by Truthout and Earth Island Journal. It was supported by a grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism.