Clogged Toilets, Snow Inside: How the Winter Storm Exacerbated Problems in Texas Lock-Ups

After the near-total collapse of the state’s electric grid, many jails and prisons lacked heat and running water.

The Observer obtained video of snow falling through a broken window in one Texas prison cell last week, and piling up on the windowsill.
The Observer obtained video of snow falling through a broken window in one Texas prison cell last week, and piling up on the windowsill.

After the near-total collapse of the state’s electric grid, many jails and prisons lacked heat and running water.

The Observer obtained video of snow falling through a broken window in one Texas prison cell last week, and piling up on the windowsill.
The Observer obtained video of snow falling through a broken window in one Texas prison cell last week, and piling up on the windowsill.

For more than a week, 60-year-old Willis Darby was pretty sure he had COVID-19: He was congested and suffering from headaches at the Bastrop County Jail where he is incarcerated. 

Then, Winter Storm Uri hit. The heater broke, he said, and staff brought him an extra blanket to help stave off the cold. The jail lost running water last Tuesday, and Darby said he spent the day without any water to drink. He struggled to breathe, and sometimes blood came out when he blew his nose. “My whole body hurts,” he said. “It’s scary.” He put in requests for Ibuprofen to alleviate his symptoms. It wasn’t until Wednesday morning that he finally got some medication, he said. With no way to flush the toilets, Darby said staff gave inmates pieces of cardboard to cover them, in an effort to contain the smell and overflow. The Bastrop County Sheriff’s Office did not respond to a request for comment. 

“I kept thinking it can’t get worse, it can’t get worse,” says Krish Gundu, executive director of Texas Jail Project, an advocacy group that’s been tracking conditions inside Texas jails since last March. “I don’t know why we thought it couldn’t get worse.” 

Incarcerated Texans have long suffered from extreme temperatures and unhygienic conditions, but last week’s polar vortex dramatically exacerbated systemic issues, according to advocates and people inside. Toilets clogged from a lack of running water, so some inmates held their bowel movements. Since Texas jails and prisons widely ban hand sanitizer because of its high alcohol content—even during the coronavirus pandemic—incarcerated people without water had no way to keep clean. Bottled water was in short supply, so some went hours or even days without drinking water. After the near-total collapse of the state’s electric grid, many jails and prisons lacked heat, leaving incarcerated Texans in frigid conditions. 

The Observer obtained video of snow falling through a broken window in one Texas prison cell last week, and piling up on the windowsill. An inmate at the unit, who asked to remain anonymous out of fear of retaliation, shoved extra boxers and clothing into the cracks in an attempt to keep out the cold. “It’s like being in a meat locker,” he said.

Broken windows have long been an issue in Texas prisons, allowing frigid and scorching temperatures to seep into cells, says Melanie Dewberry, a board member for Families and Incarcerated Together Healing (FAITH), an advocacy group for family members of incarcerated Texans. 

According to Jeremy Desel, spokesperson for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ), 32 of the state’s nearly 100 prisons were running on backup generator power and 33 either had no water or low water pressure during the worst of the outages. Desel says staff were stationed at every unit ahead of the storm to handle maintenance issues. As of Monday, he said power and water were back at all units. Brandon Wood, executive director of the Texas Commission on Jail Standards, had no estimate of the number of jails affected by power outages or water shortages. Both have said that Texas facilities are equipped with emergency generators, but their heating systems are not all connected to emergency power. 

Texas jails are required to keep the temperature between 65 and 85 degrees, according to Wood. If it drops below, they have to take additional measures, like issuing blankets, he says. Desel says he didn’t receive reports of snow inside cells, and that the lowest temperature he heard about in a Texas prison during the storm was in the low 50s. Extra blankets were issued “agency wide” last week, he says. But some staff and incarcerated people said they didn’t receive them.  

Brandy Strain, who is incarcerated in the Bowie County Jail on the Texas-Arkansas border, said that as of last Thursday, the heat wasn’t working in her dorm and she hadn’t received extra blankets since the storm hit. She said she hadn’t gotten soap either in the last two weeks, and that the facility ran out of toilet paper and menstrual pads last week. Jeff Neal, the Bowie County Sheriff, refuted these claims, saying the heat never went out and the jail didn’t run out of these supplies. “I understand that I’m not perfect and if you commit a crime this is where you go, but this is inhumane,” Strain said. “I’m feeling like I’m just stuck here, treated like an animal.” 

Meanwhile, dangerous, chronic understaffing left prisons strained while guards had to deal with their own personal crises from the storm. Last week was “twice as bad” as normal for prison staff, says Jeff Ormsby, the executive director of the Texas corrections union branch of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. “We’re hearing horror stories of officers and staff not being allowed to go home, that if they left they’d be fired,” he says. Prisons were short staffed, he says, because some employees couldn’t get to work in the icy conditions. At one unit, he says two female staff asked to leave to pick up feminine hygiene products, but were not allowed to do so. They both bled through their clothes, he says, so they had to wash their undergarments in a sink, hang them up to dry, and rewear them. 

Debbie, who asked to use her first name only out of fear of retaliation against her fiancé, who is incarcerated in the Polunsky Unit in East Texas, says she couldn’t reach him from Tuesday to Friday last week. As of Tuesday, he told her their already small meals were getting smaller. On Saturday, when she finally heard back, he said he didn’t get extra blankets and was freezing cold, curled up in a ball. He and his cellmate had filled the holes in the windows and walls with socks and extra clothes. He said he received only one cup of water in the span of 55 hours. Two people with loved ones incarcerated in the unit said that guards would not allow inmates to zip their jackets or keep their hoods up, despite the cold. Desel, of TDCJ, says inmates at the Polunsky Unit are only required to unzip jackets and lower hoods for periodic security searches.

Advocates point to chronic overcrowding, poor facility infrastructure, and inadequate emergency preparedness as policy failures that exacerbated conditions during the storm. Jennifer Erschabek, executive director of the Texas Inmate Families Association, says prisons have failed to maintain their infrastructure, including heating, cooling, and plumbing systems. She and other criminal justice advocates have long pushed for independent oversight of the state’s prison system, which she says could help remedy these systemic issues and provide more transparency. And the regulatory agency for the jail system, the Texas Commission on Jail Standards, often lacks teeth to push for reform. “Just like with ERCOT: They need oversight, and so does the prison [system],” Erschabek says.

Michael Barajas contributed reporting to this story.

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Arya Sundaram is a reporting fellow at the Texas Observer and hails from North Carolina. Her immigration and criminal justice journalism has appeared in the Atlantic, the Guardian, and the Texas Tribune. You can contact her at [email protected]


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