Most of what is remembered from Harvey is the group of civilians – the Texas/Cajun navy – who banded together to help deliver people from perilous floodwaters. Unfortunately, for some of the oft-forgotten members of society, the situation was much more saddening. The alleged conditions for inmates kept in the Bureau of Prison’s Beaumont facility has led the Prison Legal Advocacy Network (PLAN) to file notice about potential constitutional violations.
PLAN sent notice to the BOP to advise them of “persistently unconstitutional conditions of confinement endured by the 2,109 prisoners at the United States Penitentiary at Beaumont, Texas whom the Federal Bureau of Prisons elected not to evacuate before, during, or after the devastating Hurricane Harvey.”
The group laid out their case with numerous reports supporting their assertions regarding lack of action on behalf of prison officials, including a 2014 report from FEMA detailing the flooding risk in the Jefferson County coastal area, where the prison is located.
“The vulnerability of Texas prisons to hurricane conditions is a well-known and longstanding problem that traces back at least to Hurricane Ike (2008),” reads the report. PLAN says that should’ve served as an indication to make arrangements for inmates in the facility.
Following Ike, over 130 lawsuits were filed by prisoners in the LeBlanc Unit at the state prison in Beaumont arguing that the living conditions were a violation of their civil rights. The inmates claimed that withstanding the storm caused psychological trauma and living in the facility post-storm forced them to drink and use water that was contaminated. They also contested the prison officials’ failure to evacuate the facility, as it was in the path of a storm.
PLAN took testimony from both inmates and family members regarding the conditions of the Beaumont facility during and after Harvey. One inmate said, “On the 30th we were only served 2 meals and the noon meal was the last one. We were told when we complained that the extra peanut butter pack served as our evening meal. We were not told at the noon meal that we would not be given food for the remainder of the day.”
Another said, “Throughout this process hot meals and cold water was hand delivered to the officers which shows that [the] means to properly provide for us was available however the will was not.”
“Here at the Low facility we were only given 2 bottles of water the first day that the water supply was cut off…With the entire city of Beaumont being without water, this has resulted in there being no water for drinking, bathing, or flushing toilets.” said another.
A different inmate said, “I felt I was going to die because the water was not enough to sustain a 6’2 235lb body. When I passed out the first time my celly called the officer to ask for help and we were met with aggression and ‘you’re just faking be a man and suck it up’.”
Other complaints go on to detail the lack of access to medical care, and TVs and radios. Electronics may be a luxury, but without the ability to regularly communicate outside of the prison walls, inmates had no way to know the status of Harvey, its severity, or if the worst was yet to come.
“All evidences and appearances indicate that the Federal Bureau of Prisons failed to uphold its due diligence obligations to make reasonable preparations for foreseeable storm conditions,” continues to the report.
At the time that PLAN issued the report, they had a few immediate demands: five bottles of water per inmate per day, periodically turn on facility water to allow waste disposal, dispense all prescribed medications and regularize medical access, provide sanitary wipes while shower facilities were not working. They also asked that if constitutional conditions of confinement could not be restored, evacuate the inmates.
Understandably, Harvey was unprecedented, and many Texans went without water, electricity, food, and shelter. The problem is, though, that inmates are not free to evacuate, search for water, or find food; they are kept in government care, and their safety and well-being becomes government’s responsibility.
The underlying point of PLAN’s filing is that, “Prisoners are entirely dependent upon prison administrators for their safety and wellbeing. They have no means of preparing for, or protecting themselves from the effects of, natural disasters while incarcerated.”
Currently, U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett along with several Austin-based criminal justice organizations have spoken out about the allegations and are asking the BOP to respond.