Beaumont, TX— If there is one thing those doing prison advocacy learn quickly, it’s that the official statements from prison officials never provide a full account of negative conditions and abuses. Looking into the impact of Hurricane Harvey, this is especially true; but looking out for how the aftermath will be handled, this is even more daunting for those who have no voice. Though prisoners endured Hurricane Harvey with the rest of us, aid and concern for their well-being has been slow to follow, leaving basic human needs up to the discretion of prison administrators.
In the immediate wake of Harvey’s landfall, official statements downplayed its impact. On Sept. 1, the Federal Bureau of Prisons said “power has been restored to FCC Beaumont, and generator power is no longer being used. The Inmate Telephone System (ITS) is currently operational. The FCC continues to use its own reserve of water to operate the complex. There is ample food and bottled water for inmates and staff,” while the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) social media pages read “leadership visited the facilities in Dayton this afternoon talking with staff and dropping off donations. Everyone continues to work hard to ensure staff and offenders are safe” with gratuitous photos of executive director Brian Collier talking with TDCJ employees. There’s also a donation drive and resources extended to employees impacted by the hurricane in a video featuring Collier himself, however, no direct information was provided about resources or conditions for prisoners beyond evacuations.
Five units were evacuated due to threats of flooding as the Brazos River rose to historic levels, starting on Aug. 29. These units included Vance, Jester 3, Stringfellow, Ramsey, and Terrel. Yet both federal and state-run prisons in the port town Beaumont—located 90 miles east of Houston—doubled down on their refusal to evacuate carceral facilities, nor have any clear plan in place to ensure the safety of their captives.
When Harvey made second landfall on the coast of Port Arthur-Beaumont on Wed. Aug. 30, the city of Beaumont (pop. 118,000) experienced a voluntary evacuation, those behind walls had no choice and remained subject to horrible living conditions, such as limited access to clean drinking water and food (in some cases, only eight ounces per day and one to two sandwiches), buckets to defecate in, and inaccessibility to proper hygiene. Jefferson County houses three state run facilities (Gist, LeBlanc, Stiles), three federal facilities, juvenile detention centers, in addition to private prisons.
Within the Federal Correctional Complex (FCC), Beaumont FCI Low and Beaumont FCI Medium (housing a combined total of 1,850 prisoners) operated by UNICOR and/or FPI, a wholly owned United States government corporation created in 1934 as a prison labor program for prisoners within the Federal Bureau of Prisons (a component of the Department of Justice). BASF Agriculture plant is located less than three miles east of the Federal Correctional Complex, and down the street from TDCJ facility, Stiles Unit. According to official statements from the Beaumont BASF plant,“water pollution from some facilities is also spiking: BASF’s Beaumont Agro plant, which produces agricultural chemicals,” and noted an “exceptional event” filing that its toxin-laden waste water “will continue to overflow to the ground until the rain stops.” Note: Kinder Morgan (gas refinery) and Sunoco Logistics are within a three mile radius of the prisons.
FCI Beaumont Low went on lockdown from Aug. 27 through Sept. 2, when incarcerated persons were let out of their cells for about an hour. Many called outside to talk with family and friends about conditions, and said some cells were flooded, they were not getting sufficient food or water, medicines were not being distributed, and unsanitary conditions persisted due to the inability to flush toilets. During the chaos, many units remained on lockdown, meaning prisoners were not allowed to access commissary or leave their cells, and in some cases were denied phone access.
In a report conducted by Left Voice a week after Harvey hit, a woman whose husband is incarcerated at Beaumont Federal Prison said, “they are using the restroom in bags so they can save the toilet water. They all have been drinking the toilet water since they have been low on water supply. He said that even though the toilet water has bacteria, at this moment he didn’t care and the other prisoners didn’t care either. They are really thirsty. He said he would drink anything. He told me that if this water didn’t kill him, the conditions were going to kill him. That’s how bad it is.”
Communication with prisoners has slowed down significantly. The TDCJ Mail System Coordinators Panel said mail was suspended until further notice for any units impacted by Harvey, contrary to the Ombudsman 24 hour hotline which said the suspension was state wide due to the main mail distribution hub being located in Houston. Additionally, visitations were cancelled the weekend of Sept. 2 for 29 units, and 14 units have cancelled visitation for the weekend of Sept. 9, with 13 additional units subjected to decreased visitation time. Phone privileges have remained inconsistent, or revoked entirely.
Similar stories have come from state units. The TDCJ Stiles Unit also reported inadequate food and water, lack of access to medical needs and staff shortages. One incarcerated person at Stiles said water in the building was up to his knees during the worst flooding, and as of Sept. 4 leveled at mid-calf. TDCJ spokesperson Jason Clark denied any flooding.
In the days and weeks ahead, unsanitary conditions alongside water shortages will likely continue and worsen, inevitably leading to illnesses and dehydration for many. Limited communications from inside the units will exacerbate confusion about conditions. Staff shortages will likely mean a continuation of lockdown conditions and failure to provide for medical needs such as heart and asthma medications and treatment for other chronic conditions. Prisoners will continue to lose hope as officials refuse to provide accurate information to media.
The Anarchist Black Cross calls for immediate action to take place to ensure the safety and wellbeing of those imprisoned in Beaumont.
1. Evacuate all units in Beaumont until proper steps are made to address contamination, mold, and other health hazards, as well as accessibility to clean drinking water.
2. Publicize all data documenting decisions regarding the Hurricane that took place between August 25, 2017 to present.
3. Resume communications between prisoners and outside supporters, including media.
4. Allow reporters to tour facilities to foster transparency.
5. Cease the operation of all institutions of confinement.
– Houston and Austin Anarchist Black Cross