As Florida braces for Hurricane Irma, we look at conditions in Texas prisons since Hurricane Harvey hit the Gulf Coast two weeks ago with a historic downpour that lasted several days and caused massive flooding. Prisoners were not evacuated from either the federal prison or three Texas prisons in the heavily flooded city of Beaumont, east of Houston, where high water was so destructive that it disabled the city’s water supply system. State prison officials say water did not flood prisons there. But a prisoner named named Clifton Cloer, who is housed on the first floor of the Stiles Unit in Beaumont, told his wife that he stood in water up to his kneecaps during the storm and later faced the stench of backed-up toilets. We speak to Rachel Villalobos, who has been in touch with her husband who is held at the Federal Correctional Complex in Beaumont; Lance Lowry, the president of AFSCME Local 3807 of the Texas Correctional Employees; and Democracy Now! correspondent Renée Feltz.
AMY GOODMAN: Hurricane Irma, the most powerful Atlantic storm ever recorded, laid waste to parts of the Caribbean overnight, pummeling Turks and Caicos, hammering the Bahamas and taking aim at South Florida, home to millions. The storm’s death toll rose to 18, but officials warn the figure will increase as rescue workers search through the rubble on islands that have seen over 90 percent of all buildings destroyed.
Well, as Florida braces for Hurricane Irma, we now take a look at conditions in Texas prisons since Hurricane Harvey hit the Gulf Coast two weeks ago with an historic downpour that lasted several days and caused massive flooding. Prison officials say about 4,500 prisoners remain evacuated. This is Texas Department of Criminal Justice Executive Director Bryan Collier giving an update Wednesday.
BRYAN COLLIER: We currently still have the Ramsey 1, the Terrell and the Stringfellow units evacuated. Those units remain largely dry; however, many of the outbuildings, support services areas, appear to be wet, and we’re still trying to work to get a full assessment of the damage done at those locations.
AMY GOODMAN: Meanwhile, prisoners were not evacuated from either the federal prison or three Texas prisons in the heavily flooded city of Beaumont, east of Houston, where high water was so destructive it disabled the city’s water supply system. State prison officials say water did not flood prisons there. But a prisoner named Clifton Cloer, who is housed on the first floor of the Stiles Unit in Beaumont, told his wife he stood in water up to his kneecaps during the storm and later faced the stench of backed-up toilets.
For more, we go to Texas, where we’re joined in Dallas by Rachel Villalobos, who has been in touch with her husband who’s held at the Federal Correctional Complex in Beaumont. She says prisoners there faced mistreatment during flooding related to Hurricane Harvey. In Houston, we’re joined by Lance Lowry, president of AFSCME Local 3807 of the Texas Correctional Employees, the union which represents Texas prison employees. Also with us, Democracy Now! correspondent Renée Feltz, who I just left in Houston. She’s back in her hometown.
We welcome you all to Democracy Now! Let us begin right now with Rachel Villalobos. Can you describe when your husband called you and what he said was happening in Beaumont, in the Beaumont prison he’s in, Rachel?
RACHEL VILLALOBOS: He called me September 2nd from prison for the first time since August 27th. And he explained the amount of food they were getting, which was two sandwiches a day, eight ounces of water. He said that the prison did get water in it, that all the inmates are using the number one and number two in bags, just to reserve the toilet water, so they could drink the toilet water. I explained to him, “Don’t drink the toilet water. Don’t drink that water in Beaumont.” You know, it has bacteria and all kinds of infestations in it. And he said, at this moment, he didn’t care. If the water didn’t kill him, then the situation was going to kill him. He said he was so dehydrated that when he woke up, his eyelids were sticking to his eyeballs. His tongue was sticking to the top of his mouth. That’s how severely dehydrated he was due to the lack of water.
AMY GOODMAN: Wait. Can you explain again, what were they given in bags?
RACHEL VILLALOBOS: No, they was using the restroom in bags, to preserve the toilet water.
AMY GOODMAN: And the AC, air conditioning? I mean, it is, to say the least, hot in Houston, in Beaumont. And with everything that had happened, the power had gone out. The AC was out?
RACHEL VILLALOBOS: Yes. They had no power. They had the generators that they were turning on and off. The AC—they didn’t have no AC for a good while. The 27th was the last time I believe they had the AC. I just got a message from him saying they did have AC for four to five days. But again, I was told that the officers there are watching him and telling him what to write. So, right at this moment, I don’t know what to believe, but that I was told from other inmates’ wives that they did not have AC, either.
AMY GOODMAN: Now, there are a lot of rumors that go around at times like this, you know, in prison and outside of prison, but you got reports that two prisoners died from drinking the toilet water? Is that what you heard?
RACHEL VILLALOBOS: I have emails from inmates saying, yes, quoted, “Another inmate has passed already.” And then, at the bottom of the email, it said that this guy collapsed due to him drinking water, that the guards rushed to him. Yes, but I did get confirmation that two inmates from the Low, Beaumont Low, have passed away due to this.
AMY GOODMAN: Now, the federal officials have responded. They said there have not been any inmate fatalities as a result of Hurricane Harvey or otherwise at FCC—that’s Federal Correctional Complex—Beaumont. This is TDCJ—that’s the Texas Department of Criminal Justice—Executive Director Bryan Collier giving an update Wednesday on water access for prisoners in Beaumont, where the floodwaters disabled the city’s water supply system.
BRYAN COLLIER: We’ve had significant improvement in the last couple of days in the Beaumont area. Water pressure yesterday began improving. So, as we continue this week, we see that continuing to improve, so we are getting water back in the Beaumont areas. Some of the things we did during the time the city of Beaumont was without water is, our units, we have water tankers that were on site and remained filled, so that we could do activities with water. We also distributed significant truckloads of water, bottled water, to those units to have offenders be able to use water. We also provided water in the housing areas of many of the facilities, as well.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to bring Renée Feltz into this discussion, Democracy Now! correspondent on the ground in Houston this week. Renée, can you talk about what you’ve been able to document on the ground about prison conditions?
RENÉE FELTZ: Well, thanks, Amy, for having me back on.
There is a lot of talk about who was evacuated during the storm and who wasn’t, and the conditions. And we knew that it was important to look also at the conditions behind bars. It’s a little hard to document what’s happening. The Houston Chronicle has tried to visit some of the facilities in Beaumont, where the city did lose water, and the prisoners were not evacuated in the Texas or the federal facilities. The Chronicle wasn’t allowed to receive a tour, as they had requested. You know, there may be a lot going on there, and it wasn’t able to be accommodated. But at the same time, journalists haven’t been able to go in to see with their own eyes what’s happening at the facilities.
That said, it’s interesting that there’s an effort by the National Lawyers Guild. They have an effort called the Prisoner Legal Advocacy Network. And today, they’re going to be filing a notice with the Bureau of Prisons and the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, asking them not to—to make sure that evidence basically is preserved in terms of documenting what’s happened. So we’re talking about surveillance footage. We’re talking about videos inside the prison, outside. We’re talking about social media images. We’re talking about other records of who was moved and when, staffing records. And they’re also asking people like Rachel and other loved ones and friends of prisoners in these facilities to keep track of what they’ve been able to document, because they plan to use some of this potentially for litigation in the future.
Part of what they’re concerned about is that these facilities have flooded before. In fact, we have images of a facility in the Texas area—in Texas that has flooded previously and is now flooded again this time. I believe it’s the Terrell and Stringfellow units in Rosharon, Texas. And so, people have raised concerns about, if these facilities are prone to flooding, do you have a solid plan in place in terms of how to evacuate, or if you’re not going to evacuate prisoners, what you’re going to do to make sure that they have humane living conditions, because what we’ve understood from prisoners who’ve been able to call out to their loved ones or to send emails, like Rachel described, is not only that—some of them were describing that they did have water, even though prison officials have said that there was not water in the cells necessarily, even though there was some in outerlying buildings. There’s conflicting reports of that. But we’ve also heard prisoners describe eating a single hot dog with no bun for lunch and having very limited access to water, as Rachel described.
It’s important to note—and I’d be interested to hear from Rachel about any retaliation that prisoners are facing when they do try to document conditions or to get in touch with family members. We mentioned last week when we were talking about how TDCJ, Texas Department of Criminal Justice, didn’t actually get around to evacuating prisons in Fort Bend County until some people made calls to the outside, and their loved ones then called the officials and encouraged them to evacuate the facilities. We heard, for example, that Nanon Williams made a call like that and is now one of the [4,500] prisoners that remains evacuated. One thing also, we did get an update from that prisoner, Nanon Williams, who said that they are being held in a gymnasium-like facility, sleeping on cots, and that they do have a lot of concern about cockroaches, snakes, other bugs that are bothering them there in that facility. But—
AMY GOODMAN: And, Renée, talk about who Nanon is.
RENÉE FELTZ: Mm-hmm. Nanon Williams is a former death row prisoner here in Texas who was sentenced to death for a crime he—a murder he says he did not commit. He was a juvenile at the time. And the U.S. Supreme Court has said that it’s unconstitutional to sentence juveniles to death, and so he was moved to a different facility, where he remains now. And his case is actually being reinvestigated by a special unit set up to look at cases that had evidence that ran through the Harris County crime lab, which had a lot of problems at the time.
AMY GOODMAN: Rachel Villalobos, that question of Renée’s: Was there any retaliation for your husband or others speaking out, trying to reach you? And was there trouble reaching loved ones during the storm?
RACHEL VILLALOBOS: There was trouble reaching him. Like I said, the last time I spoke to him was on August 27th. The first time I spoke to him was September 2nd. So you can imagine me, the emotion I was—I had. I feel for the people that have their husbands in the SHU, the loved ones in the SHU, because they haven’t heard from them. And that’s really sad.
There is retaliation. I got confirmation that they’re retaliating on one prisoner already. And they’re starting to retaliate on my husband. And that’s really sad that these guards could be so corrupted like that. I mean, all we’re trying to do is just help them. And for them to retaliate like that on my husband is sad.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to go to Lance Lowry. Lance is president of AFSCME Local 3807, Texas Correctional Employees, represents guards and others. What are your concerns right now in hearing these descriptions?
LANCE LOWRY: My concerns are for our members. Our members are in the same conditions as the offenders. What I’m getting back from the feedback from the officers on the ground, they’re going to tell us the truth, what’s going on. There tends to be a exaggeration of some of the conditions. I’m not going to paint a rosy picture, like the agency. This is a hurricane disaster zone. There has been power outages in the areas, obviously disruption of water supplies, which does create a sanitary issue. However, you know, inmates standing in three, four feet of water? I visited some of these facilities, have talked personally with the officers on confidential basis. I have not heard of any of the TDC facilities flooding inside—the ones that are currently occupied. Now, there have been issues as far as the disruption of the water supply and sanitary conditions. But the staff on the ground are in the same conditions, and they do have a vested interest, pertaining to their own health, to keep a sanitary environment. So—
AMY GOODMAN: Lance, you have—
LANCE LOWRY: There is a—
AMY GOODMAN: You’ve told the Houston press that the sheriff [sic], [Texas Department of Criminal Justice Director of Public Information Jason] Clark, is just doing his job by presenting a rosier picture, but have been talking about, you know, the difficulties. For example, can you talk about the Stiles Unit and other prisons on emergency lockdown in Beaumont? People outside Texas might be surprised to hear, in this one town, not that large, there are what? How many prisons? At least five?
LANCE LOWRY: Yeah, there’s several federal facilities, and there’s three TDCJ state facilities in Beaumont. The conditions of the TDCJ facilities, the biggest issue, what we’ve seen, is staffing issues. Some of the homes, roadways were obviously shut down. One thing the agency did try to paint a rosier picture of was the staffing situation. Obviously, if you look at any of the maps from the flooding, you can clearly see that the roadways going in and out of the majority of the facilities were severely flooded. As a matter of fact, our union hall in Beaumont was flooded. So, you know, I’ve talked personally with people on the ground. It’s devastation for our officers. A lot of them have experienced flooding in their own homes. And at the same time, they are trying to take care of the prisons and take care of the prisoners to the best of their abilities.
AMY GOODMAN: In Polk County, Florida, the sheriff, Grady Judd, tweeted this week, quote, “If you go to a shelter for #Irma, be advised: sworn LEOs”—that’s law enforcement officers—”will be at every shelter, checking IDs. Sex offenders/predators will not be allowed.” Renée, talk about the significance of this.
RENÉE FELTZ: Well, Amy, you mention Florida. A lot of people are looking at what Florida plans to do with its prison system and their prisoners. I looked this morning to see who they had evacuated, and the latest update sounds like they’ve got 5,000 prisoners evacuated in the last 24 hours from facilities located in the path of Hurricane Irma, and there is another 3,000 that are set to move soon. And those are early reports. That’s what we’re hearing from the prison officials. There is concern not just about who’s going to be evacuated in terms of the prisons, but, as that tweet refers to, there is concern about people with criminal records being able to access shelters and how they’re being treated during all of this. And, you know, is there—
AMY GOODMAN: And, of course, this is a separate issue, but the issue of DACA and immigrants being terrified to go into shelters, which we saw in speaking to people when we were in Houston this weekend, the number of people staying in their homes, afraid, if they come out, the immigration police, as they said, the “migre,” would get them.
RENÉE FELTZ: That’s right. And we have also seen, Amy, when we were out at one of the neighborhoods where people were inflating their kayaks and going into their neighborhoods, we saw a Customs and Border Patrol truck full of officers that were putting on wading gear to help, as they said, but you can see how their presence in some of these neighborhoods, because of the fear about ICE and Customs and Border Patrol officials turning people in and engaging in raids and mass deportations, people are going to avoid areas where they see them, because of that fear. So that’s another major concern.
I wanted to suggest that we get Lance to elaborate on one point, Amy, which is back here in Texas. The facilities that we’ve described are in areas—again, Beaumont—it’s incredible. They weren’t evacuated from a city that lost its water supply. And we’re talking about five prisons. And we’re talking, as Lance pointed out, not just about the prisons, but the guards. And it’s been said that there are port-o-potties on site, for example, but groups like the Prison Abolition Prisoner Support network, PAPS, have pointed out that, you know, 20 port-o-potties at a prison for a week may get a bit overused and may start to overflow. And there were concerns even whether or not the inmates themselves, the prisoners, were able to use those or if they were just for the guards. But, you know, all of this points to a question of whether or not the facilities are meeting constitutional standards or whether or not their prisoners, during this disaster and crisis, are being held in constitutional conditions or cruel and unusual conditions. And I wanted to see if Lance could speak to that point and also about some of the history of evaluating whether the conditions at some of these facilities are constitutional.
AMY GOODMAN: Lance Lowry?
LANCE LOWRY: Sure. There’s definitely some issues we need to look at, as far as the facilities. One of our main concerns is the facilities south of Houston along the Brazos River that have flooded. We’re concerned about the health and safety, as far as mold, black mold exposure. When the agency decides to reopen these facilities, you know, this can impact, like I said, not only the inmates, but the officers themselves. And you have to remember, the officers are in these facilities for a high number of hours. And what affects the inmates, as far as the health and safety, does affect our officers. And that’s concerning when we do have this onset of these crises.
Obviously, one thing I’ve seen as far as a major flaw in Texas has been our staffing ratios. We don’t have a high number of correctional staff available for emergencies such as this. They were lucky to get 6,000 inmates out of south of Houston, where it was flood-prone. Had we had more disastrous situations in Beaumont, at the time, we didn’t have enough time to get people in and evacuate those offenders or even the officers. And I’ve been on site and have seen, you know, and talked to, like I said, a lot of the officers. It has severely impacted our officers. And running these prison systems without the correct appropriations is leading to constitutional issues. We don’t have enough staffing in place. When you don’t have enough staff, you know, services sometimes are delayed. If you look at the state of Texas as far as our staffing ratios, we manage, for every officer, six offenders. You go to the state of New York, it’s one and three.
RENÉE FELTZ: And just to jump in there, Lance, as we probably need to wrap up, there is an interesting concern raised: If prisoners are evacuated to other facilities, and you’ve got those facilities managing potentially twice as many population, many of these facilities have been—had concerns raised previously about whether they are constitutional, because of the lack of air conditioning in Texas. And we see that again to some of the facilities where people were evacuated to. And finally, here in Harris County, we’ve seen reports that the Harris County Criminal Justice Complex, a 20-story building, had its toilets explode and sewage flood everywhere, after the storm. It’s right next to Buffalo Bayou downtown. It could be closed for many, many months, delaying people’s trials—and another aspect of the criminal justice system that we’re going to keep an eye on here in Texas.
AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you all for being with us, Lance Lowry, president of AFSCME Local 3807 of the Texas Correctional Employees, represents guards and others in the prisons, the union; Renée Feltz, Democracy Now! correspondent; and Rachel Villalobos, on the phone with us, whose been in touch with her husband who’s held at the Federal Correctional Complex in Beaumont and says prisoners there faced mistreatment during the flooding related to Hurricane Harvey. Beaumont lost all its water.
This is Democracy Now! When we come back, the segregation of Alabama schools. Stay with us.
AMY GOODMAN: “Come Down Here & Say That” by Deerhoof, performing here at Democracy Now!'s studios. To see the full performances and interview, go to democracynow.org. This is Democracy Now! I'm Amy Goodman.