AUSTIN, Texas – When an unusually heavy winter storm blanketed much of Texas with snow, knocking out electricity to millions of homes and leaving many struggling to find clean water, one sector of the population was particularly vulnerable: inmates at the state’s largest county jail.
Raul Carreon, a pretrial inmate at the Harris County Jail, said it became freezing cold and “pitch black” when the power went out at the lockup late on Feb. 14. Then, he said, they lost water pressure, so toilets wouldn't flush, leading to “feces and urine backing up in the commodes.”
A boil water notice was issued for the region, but Harris County inmates didn't have that option and had to risk using water straight from the taps, Carreon said.
“Sanitation is very minimal, the smell here reeks of urine and feces,” said Carreon, who spoke to The Associated Press during a phone call Feb. 19 arranged by the Texas Jail Project, an advocacy organization. He said he just stayed in his bunk “because I don’t want to deal with what is going on here.”
Krish Gundu, co-founder and executive director of the Texas Jail Project, said her organization checked in with inmates in at least 20 Texas counties in the wake of the storm and that the conditions Carreon described were the norm — even worse in smaller counties.
“People are very cold, they are freezing, no extra blankets, there isn’t enough food,” Gundu said. Some inmates were instructed to cover their unflushed toilets with cardboard to mask the stench, she said.
Carreon — who according to jail records, is scheduled for trial in April on eight charges including aggravated robbery with a deadly weapon — said he lives in a pod with more than 20 men.
He said food was rationed in the days after the storm, and that some meals were just cornbread or a peanut butter and jelly sandwich with water. Tensions were running high in his unit, due to the small meals and restricted access to phones. All inmates receive five free phone calls a week, but to make more calls — or to buy food — they need money in their commissary accounts. Carreon said his mother couldn't afford to top up his account because she lives on government financial assistance.
Elizabeth Rossi, a senior attorney with the Civil Rights Corps — a nonprofit that aims to fight injustices in the American legal system — said she received multiple reports of jail food being rationed after the storm and said the restricted access to phones at Harris County means inmates struggled to “check if their loved ones are okay and let them know that they are not.”
“I think this highlights how unprepared Texas and Texas jails are for climate crisis like these that are going to be happening increasingly in the future,” Rossi said.
Gundu said her organization was working to deliver water and deposit money in commissary accounts. Many inmates, she said, were unable to communicate with family for a week.
The Harris County Sheriff’s Office denied it had restricted inmates' access to food and water in the days following the storm.
“There were no food rations,” the office said in a Feb. 19 statement. “Bottled drinking water is being distributed during the boil water notice.”
It conceded that the jail system was "hit with brief periods of having no power and/or plumbing throughout this event,” but insisted Harris County Jail had regained full power and water pressure. The office disputed complaints about the jail being too cold, saying the temperature inside never dropped below the state’s minimum of 65 degrees.
The issues were not restricted to county jails, although the Texas Department of Criminal Justice said state jails and prisons had been ready for the winter crisis. Jeremy Desel, a spokesman for the agency, said virtually all 102 of its facilities were affected by the storm. He said 32 units lost power and operated on generators but have since had power restored. He said 33 units temporarily experienced low water pressure.
But, he said, the state took significant steps to prepare, including distributing blankets, jackets and water.
“Our agency is very used to emergency situations when it comes to weather events,” Desel said in a statement. “We deal with severe winter weather in parts of the state every year and hurricane situations in the southern parts of the state nearly every year as well, so we are very accustomed to both preparation for events and the response to them.”
Prison rights advocates say inmate complaints related to the storm were not restricted to Texas. Some correctional facilities in Louisiana had intermittent electricity and frozen pipes, affecting toilets and showers. One inmate at a facility near Baton Rouge described ice on the walls inside his cell.
The jail in Harris County has long been the subject of legal action due to overcrowding. Civil Rights Corps won a settlement in a lawsuit to ensure that most misdemeanor defendants in the Harris County Jail don’t languish behind bars because they can’t afford bail. A similar lawsuit over bonds for poor defendants in felony cases is pending.
Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez raised concerns about the facility after its population ballooned to more than 9,000 inmates, leaving little room to quarantine individuals who test positive for the coronavirus or to separate new inmates from the general population. The jail population had dropped to about 8,800 inmates as of Jan. 26. Most were awaiting trial.
In late January, a federal judge expressed frustration over what she called a lack of progress in efforts to relieve overcrowding at the Harris County Jail during the pandemic. In a court filing, nine inmates described the facility as a “metal can of contagion.”
“A lot of people are just stuck, nothing is moving,” said Gundu, of the Texas Jail Project. “Some folks said ‘we feel like we are in purgatory, we have been forgotten, we have been put on mute.’”
Acacia Coronado is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.