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No Heat or Water, Overflowing Toilets, Disgusting Food: Texas Prisons Went “from Bad to Dire” in Storm

StoryFebruary 22, 2021
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Image Credit: Daily Beast

As winter storms overwhelmed Texas, many incarcerated people in the state went days without heat and water, making already grim conditions behind bars even more intolerable for thousands of people. Officials say 33 prisons across the state lost power and 20 had water shortages after the state’s electrical grid failed. Staff shortages compounded the problems, and some incarcerated people report not being provided with blankets to keep warm in their freezing cells and being served inedible food. “Texas prison conditions have gone from bad to dire,” says Marshall Project reporter Keri Blakinger. “Prisons didn’t really have the sort of infrastructure going into all of this that many people do in the free world.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! The Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González, as we look now at the dire conditions incarcerated people in Texas faced as they were left for days in their cells, often with no heat or running water, during last week’s winter storm that overwhelmed Texas’s deregulated energy grid.

At the Federal Medical Center, Carswell, Fort Worth Star-Telegram reporter Kaley Johnson reported more than a thousand women held there finally got heat Friday, after nearly six days of freezing, though the Bureau of Prisons disputed this. One prisoner told The Intercept sewage water was everywhere in the facility, which has also been hit hard by COVID-19 and houses whistleblower Reality Winner, who tested positive for COVID in July.

Reports are also emerging from immigrant jails of solitary confinement cells with no heat. Texans locked up in city and county jails, accused of crimes but awaiting trial, unable to post bond, also suffered. This is Brandy S., who is jailed in Bowie County, describing conditions there in a call recorded Thursday by the Texas Jail Project.

BRANDY S.: We are not receiving any tissue. I’m in a pod of 19 women. They came up here and gave us three rolls yesterday. Well, haven’t given us any soap since two weeks ago almost. Laundry has not came at all, and we’re completely out of pads. We’ve had water, but the heat in our particular dorm has been out for days. The only way that we are regulating our temperature is, the dorms that are beside, their heat, I guess, is working, and it’s like filtering over through the bars into ours. But it has been cold. They give us two blankets when we get here, but they have not offered us any extra blankets since the weather hit.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Brandy S., jailed in Bowie County. In Houston, at the Harris County Jail, the third-largest jail in the United States, at least one man was reported dead last week as men shivered in overcrowded cells, many sleeping on the floor next to overflowing toilets. Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez described the jail last month as, quote, “bursting at the seams.” And this was last month, before the storm. He had already warned of a potential health crisis. Across Texas, officials said 33 prisons lost power, 20 had water shortages.

For an update on all of this, we go to Houston, where we’re joined by Keri Blakinger, staff writer for The Marshall Project, the publication’s first formerly incarcerated reporter. Her latest piece is headlined “Inside Frigid Texas Prisons: Broken Toilets, Disgusting Food, Few Blankets.” In it, she shows several photos of the kind of food prisoners have been forced to eat and describes the, quote, “increasingly pitiful meals, including one that was nothing but a small piece of cornbread, a half a piece of cheese, a handful of raisins and a hot dog with no bun or ketchup”

Keri, welcome back to Democracy Now! Describe what took place over this last week.

KERI BLAKINGER: Well, Texas prison conditions have gone from bad to pretty dire, I would say, in dozens of units. For some prisoners, I think this is a little bit like Harvey all over again. But the problems are probably more — well, definitely more widespread this time.

You know, once the power started going out in the free world, we started seeing this happening in prisons, as well. Prisons didn’t really have the sort of infrastructure, going into all of this, that many people do in the free world. So, we are seeing places that already had trouble heating things adequately. You know, there’s been long-standing issues with a lack of air conditioning in the summers, and every winter we hear these same complaints about lack of heat or very uneven heat, because, in a lot of cases, even if the heat is working, the ductwork is shoddy and old, so it simply just doesn’t get anywhere. And that’s all before a storm.

So, then you have a storm. You lose electricity in several units. You lose water or water pressure in several units. You have overflowing toilets. You have — you know, I was hearing reports of units where they have four toilets to a hundred-some men, and on a good day that’s not enough, and then those toilets don’t work. And, you know, the conditions get bad pretty quickly. We heard about men taking snow from the roofs to try to flush the toilets, but, of course, there’s just not enough snow to deal with thousands of men.

And then, you know, there’s the food on top of that. As you mentioned, I’ve gotten some pictures of what the meals look like. And, you know, they’re clearly just not enough to support grown people. And these are meals that are not your daily prison fare. This is what happens when there are lockdowns, because the food tends to get worse during lockdowns. They’re given bagged meals. And, you know, when there’s not enough staff to help coordinate these things, these bagged meals end up looking sadder and sadder. And it’s just clearly not adequate.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Keri, what kind of oversight or minimum requirements are there by state officials on these prisons? For instance, are there any requirements for them to have emergency generators or backup systems in case of power failures?

KERI BLAKINGER: I don’t know if there’s a legal requirement for it. There’s not as much oversight, in some ways, regarding prisons as there are regarding jails. The oversight for prisons just sort of falls to the agency and to state legislators.

But the fact of the matter is that we have roughly a hundred prisons, and that is expensive. So, we have a lot of infrastructure and equipment problems. We don’t have working fire alarms in most prisons. Like, when we do have generators, which, you know, they do have generators, they don’t always go on as planned. And even if they do, the ductwork is problematic at best. So, it’s not so much that these things don’t exist as that they are often just not functional.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And in terms of the situation in county jails, are you familiar or have a sense of what’s been going on there?

KERI BLAKINGER: Yeah. So, in Harris County, which is where I live, this is the, you know, biggest jail. There’s about 9,000 people in the jail there. You know, we’re hearing a lot of these same, fairly dire complaints.

But here, I think it’s worth noting that the sheriff has been — you know, he’s been out and saying that this jail was going to be a problem. Like, he has been trying to get the population reduced and has been having issues with the judges and the state and prosecutors, trying to work with them or work against them, whatever the case may be —

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, he sued, didn’t he, Keri?

KERI BLAKINGER: — to try to get the population down.

AMY GOODMAN: He sued to get the population reduced, the sheriff.

KERI BLAKINGER: He has been vocal about this before COVID and during COVID. And, you know, I think he’d be the first to say that — well, he has been the first to say that this is a problem.

And, you know, one thing also about the jail here is that they actually managed to get some people vaccinated as a result of this, which I thought was — I mean, I would say a silver lining, but it’s such a bad situation, I hate to say that. But they actually managed to get around 900 people vaccinated with vaccines that would have gone bad because of the loss of refrigeration when electricity went out elsewhere. So, that’s something that I haven’t heard happening else — in other jails or prisons, people getting vaccinated as a result of the power outages. But I think it does show sort of where the sheriff’s interests lie in terms of advocating for the people in his jail.

AMY GOODMAN: Is it true — we heard Carswell, the federal prison where Reality Winner is, they actually didn’t lose electricity but didn’t want to turn on the heat, so that it wouldn’t be said that only prisoners get heat in Texas?

KERI BLAKINGER: I haven’t gotten any indication that that was true. You know, I’ve heard plenty of complaints about the conditions, that I’ve checked out — you know, families and friends and lawyers of people who were in there. You know, the thing is, if you turn off the heat — like, the staff has an incentive not to turn off the heat, because then they have to work in those conditions. What I have heard is that it took a while for the heat to be functional enough to make much difference and that there were places in the facility where the conditions varied quite a lot. Like, some places in the facility had longer power outages than others. So, I don’t — I haven’t gotten any confirmation about that.

AMY GOODMAN: Keri Blakinger, we want to thank you for being with us and for your reporting with The Marshall Project. We will link to your latest piece, “Inside Frigid Texas Prisons: Broken Toilets, Disgusting Food, Few Blankets.”

And tune in tomorrow to Democracy Now! as we remember the pioneering science-fiction writer Octavia Butler, who died 15 years ago this week. She gave one of her last interviews to Democracy Now! in 2005. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. Stay safe.

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