A Prison Cover-up During Hurricane Rita
As Hurricane Rita thundered towards him, Garrett Deetz lay terrified and confused on his bunk, locked up inside a cell at the United States Penitentiary in Beaumont.
For the past two days, he and about 1,300 other maximum-security inmates had watched and listened to news coverage on television and radio as the residents of Jefferson County followed a mandatory evacuation order and fled their homes in anticipation of one of the fiercest storms in American history.
The images of destruction and suffering in New Orleans that played over and over on national TV in the wake of Hurricane Katrina less than a month earlier were still fresh in Deetz's mind. And now Rita, which weather experts were touting as even more intense, with winds blasting across the Gulf of Mexico at 175 miles-an-hour, was heading for him.
Inside his cage, Deetz and his cellmate couldn't understand why the warden had not moved them to safer ground.
"We kept hearing on the news that everybody needed to get out," says Deetz, "and I kept telling my cellie, 'Bro, they've got to get us out of here; they're saying everyone has to go. There's no way they can just leave us here.'"
But no one inside the pen was going anywhere.
It was around 4 a.m. on September 24, 2005, when Hurricane Rita plowed into the Beaumont area. By then, the storm had weakened some, dropping from a Category 5 to a Category 3 hurricane, but winds still roared at more than 110 miles per hour as sheets of rain fell from the predawn sky.
Suddenly, the lights inside Deetz's cell flickered and went completely dark as he heard the air-conditioning system grind to a halt. All power was gone. Deetz's cellmate had just taken a bowel movement, but the toilet would not flush. The plumbing was shot. A garbage bag held the only drinking water available. Guards had handed out the plastic bags before the storm, telling inmates to fill them with tap water in case the hurricane knocked out the sewer and water systems. There wasn't a scrap of food in Deetz's cell.
At the bottom corners of the only window in the third-floor cell, water was streaming in — not enough to cause flooding, but enough so that everything in the room including Deetz's mattress, sheets and clothes was getting soaked.
"The window was shaking hard and you could hear the wind," says Deetz. "Even the walls were shaking. It was terrifying. I thought the window was going to blow out and the water was going to come in and we were going to die in our cell."
After the storm, Deetz heard inmates crying out for help. But no one, he says, was there to answer. Deetz peered out his window, and saw nothing but the devastated landscape.
"It was like an Armageddon movie," he says. "I remember thinking, 'Beaumont is gone. There is no Beaumont. And we're stuck in this cell, with bars and a steel door. What do we do?' That was the thing that scared me the most. Nothing compares to that feeling of looking out and not seeing anyone anywhere."
Meanwhile, Deetz's mother, Judith, was frantically phoning the prison to find out if her son was okay. She says it took her several tries to get someone to answer, but finally an official taking calls told her the inmates had all been moved out before the hurricane hit. Judith felt relieved. And she was not alone. Around the same time, many wives, mothers and loved ones desperate for news were calling a Federal Bureau of Prisons information line. They say operators told them that though the inmates had not been evacuated, they were assured that everyone was safe and well cared for.
Newspapers reported the same story. Bureau of Prisons spokesman Mike Truman, for instance, told the Houston Chronicle four days after the storm that inmates had portable toilets and were getting two hot meals and one cold meal a day.
But now, following a Houston Press investigation, new details are emerging that suggest none of that was true at the maxium security prison. According to Deetz and other inmates, conditions in the days and weeks following Hurricane Rita were medieval.
As temperatures hovered around 100 degrees, Deetz and his cellmate were locked up for weeks without any ventilation or escape from the rising tide of urine and feces accumulating in their cell. For two days, they did not receive food, and when supplies finally began to trickle in, there was nothing but peanut butter sandwiches on moldy bread and stale potato chips. Deetz claims he did not get a hot meal for about a month. The small bottles of water handed out were simply not enough to combat the intense dehydration Deetz suffered as he sweat uncontrollably. The paint on the walls began to peel off, and prisoners begging for help and screaming out for someone to open their food slots so they could get some air had trouble breathing due to the humidity.
"We were helpless," says Deetz. "It was the worst thing I've ever been through my entire life."
Asked to respond to allegations in this story, Bureau of Prisons spokeswoman Traci Billingsley in Washington, D.C., and Deborah Denham, executive assistant at the South Central Regional Office in Dallas, declined to comment, citing pending litigation.
In all, scores of inmates including Deetz say they were deprived of nearly every basic human need for several weeks, including food, water, sleep, medicine, clean clothes, showers and flushing toilets.
Independently, the president of the local chapter in Beaumont of the American Federation of Government Employees, who represents the federal corrections officers, backs up most of the inmates' claims, telling the Houston Press that conditions inside the penitentiary after Rita were the worst he'd ever endured and that the Bureau of Prisons was to blame.
All the while, the outside world knew nothing of what was happening. Understandably, people believed what prison officials were reporting, that everyone was okay. No one knew that inmates were suffering and that not everyone was receiving proper medical care. Even after the status quo had been restored, still no one knew, as prison officials did all they could to keep the conditions quiet by allegedly threatening inmates and discouraging them from seeking justice.
But two years later, thanks to a class-action lawsuit filed by an Ohio civil rights attorney on behalf of more than 400 current and former inmates at USP Beaumont, all that is about to change.
Attorney Norman Sirak is a bowling ball of a man with wispy, Einstein-like gray hair. He works in Canton, Ohio, alongside his wife, who escaped from the Communist regime in Poland as a child, and his paralegal, who is an ex-con.
Sirak is a self-described liberal and hippie who went to law school at American University in Washington, D.C., where he protested against the Vietnam War.
For many years, Sirak made a healthy living working in the securities field, filing registrations for small companies. Then one day about seven years ago, a client of his who had gone to prison for securities fraud told Sirak about some problems he believed existed in the Ohio parole system. It was then that Sirak's legal career took a turn. He filed a class-action lawsuit against the state's parole board, a case which he is still fighting and is preparing to submit to the U.S. Supreme Court. Sirak has also launched separate class-action cases against the Pennsylvania parole board and the Texas parole board. In the Texas case, the United States District Court for the Western District of Texas dismissed the case and Sirak is currently appealing that decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit.
"Finally I am doing what I think I was always meant to do," he says.
It started out as just another day last August inside the cramped office where Sirak was working on his parole board cases when he opened up a letter from an inmate at Beaumont. The note was from Kelvin Andre Spotts, a prisoner inside the federal penitentiary, explaining how he had filed a pro se lawsuit on behalf of dozens of inmates concerning poor treatment and conditions during Hurricane Rita. A judge had denied class-action status to Spotts's case and now he was looking for an attorney to pick up the pieces. Two years earlier, Spotts had read an article in a legal magazine about Sirak's work for prisoners' rights, and he had held on to it ever since.
Time was of the essence, and Sirak immediately jumped on the case.
"We had a very hectic first five or six weeks," says Sirak, "trying to figure out what happened and to get as many people as we could to join. Because we had to beat a deadline."
Before inmates could join the lawsuit, says Sirak, they first had to exhaust their administrative remedy within the federal prison system. That meant they had to file a tort claim within two years of the incident in question. The problem, Sirak says, is that prison officials at Beaumont were trying to keep inmates from filing their claims, and the two-year statute of limitations was almost up.
"It was a real big push to get everyone to file their claim," says Sirak. "But somehow we got it done."
Sirak put an advertisement in the Beaumont Enterprise trying to acquire clients. In one day, he says, the ad drew in almost 70 plaintiffs. To date, Sirak is representing 426 inmates in the lawsuit.
Spotts, who is serving a life sentence at the penitentiary in Beaumont, is the lead plaintiff and Sirak's liaison to the majority of his clients. When the Press asked for an interview with Spotts, Warden John B. Fox denied the request, citing vague reasons of "safety and security considerations."
Sirak, too, has had his share of problems dealing with the prison in Beaumont. In one instance, while he was trying to arrange a meeting with Spotts, the warden's office would not answer his calls.
"When we'd call," says Sirak, "their caller ID identified us as the Sirak law firm. So finally we figured out how to stop displaying our ID, and only then would they answer the telephone. You know, we're experienced people at this. We've been going into prisons in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Texas; it's not like we're neophytes here. But this was like going to school all over again. They've thrown every rule and regulation they can at us."
Sirak spent months working on the initial complaint.
"I looked into Hurricane Rita and what makes up a hurricane," he says. "Then I did research on Hurricane Katrina, because Katrina should have been a message and a lesson, a look at what can happen."
In the wake of Katrina, the administrators at Templeman III jail in Orleans Parish faced national outrage over their handling of the crisis. According to Human Rights Watch, about 600 inmates were locked inside their cells for four days without food, water, electricity or flushing toilets while floodwater surged up to their chests. Unlike other jail officials at the time, Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman risked the lives of his prisoners by not calling for help in evacuating the jail until it was almost too late.
Sirak also examined how the Texas Department of Criminal Justice dealt with Hurricane Rita. The state has several prisons in Beaumont very near the federal complex.
Two days before the storm hit, Jefferson County Judge Carl Griffith issued a mandatory evacuation order. Originally, forecasters were predicting Rita would strike to the south and west of Beaumont. Texas prison officials had already begun evacuating facilities south of Beaumont, but as the hurricane shifted, so did the state's evacuation plans.
Bumper-to-bumper traffic on the highways full of fleeing residents prevented the state's buses from getting to the Beaumont prisons in time. So state prison officials called in the U.S. Marshals Service, which airlifted more than 1,000 inmates to other prisons across Texas. The remaining prisoners were sent to the Stiles unit, the sturdiest of the three state prisons in Beamont, to weather the storm. Days after Rita passed, many of the inmates at Stiles were then moved to other, better-equipped facilities.
"It was very helpful to see how Texas responded," says Sirak. "They evacuated people before and after the hurricane and showed they took the duty to protect the people they were responsible for seriously. TDCJ did the right thing, and this lawsuit is going to make a bunch of them smile."
The federal prison complex in Beaumont is comprised of four units: a prison camp, a low-security facility, a medium-security institution and the maximum-security penitentiary. In the lawsuit, Sirak states that both the camp and the prison for low-security offenders were evacuated before Hurricane Rita, and inmates from the medium facility were moved out shortly after the storm. It is the penitentiary, or maximum-security facility, that is the subject of the lawsuit.
The next step for Sirak was to determine exactly what happened.
"I had to figure out day by day and week by week what did the inmates endure," Sirak says. "And I did that by reading their letters, drafting questionnaires and then sending it all back to Kelvin Spotts and asking him if there's anything wrong and so forth. I would always get everything corroborated by several inmates before I put it in the complaint."
Sirak has constructed a timeline based on all of his information.
According to the lawsuit:
On the eve of the hurricane, guards moved inmates on the lowest floor to higher levels, causing some overcrowding in cells. Then they passed out garbage bags for prisoners to fill with water and locked everyone up. After the storm hit, the building was left without plumbing or electricity to run the lights or the air conditioning. For the first three days, inmates received no food and had to drink nonpotable water.
Starting on October 1, inmates began receiving one liter of fresh water and three peanut butter sandwiches a day. Some inmates began experiencing constipation from eating only peanut butter. They still were not allowed out of their cells, and the electricity and plumbing did not work. After two weeks, prisoners were allowed to shower, but the water was brown and filled with debris that stung. Subsequently, inmates experienced rashes and boils on their skin and were not given medicine to treat the problems. After showering, they had to put back on the same sweaty clothes they had been living in for weeks because no clean clothes were provided.
It was not until a month after the hurricane that the electricity was fully restored and the inmates were taken off lockdown and allowed out of their cells for more than a few minutes.
"This was totally senseless," says Sirak. "I think that this mentality is on par with the mentality of the people who ran Auschwitz and all those death camps in Poland. That's honestly how bad I think this is."
It's been more than two years since Hurricane Rita blew through Beaumont, but the corrections officers' union president, Isaac Ortiz, is still storming over what went down inside the prison.
He, along with several hundred other staff, was forced to stay inside the federal complex with his prisoners and ride out both the squall and the terrible conditions that followed.
Ortiz is not part of Sirak's lawsuit. In fact, the two have never spoken.
"When they decided not to evacuate," says Ortiz, "they risked everybody's life."
Ortiz has been working at the Beaumont facility for 12 years. He likes his job, always has, but the conditions after Rita were the worst he says he has ever worked through.
In the days before the storm, Ortiz says that then warden Tim Outlaw and Regional Director Gerardo Maldonado, stationed in Dallas, were aware Rita was coming in as a Category 5 with 100 mile-an-hour winds and surge waters expected to reach 20 feet, which would all but cover the complex's tallest housing unit. In preparation, Ortiz says, officials ordered that the tall perimeter lights be lowered to keep them from toppling and that all vehicles near the perimeter be moved to prevent the winds and water from lifting them up and smashing them against the fence line.
The decision not to evacuate came from management at the South Central Regional office in Dallas and the Central Office in Washington, D.C., says Ortiz.
"The reason they gave us was that they thought the facilities would hold up," he says. "And therefore, they felt like they did not have to evacuate."
Jeffrey Schwartz runs a nonprofit training and research criminal justice consulting group in California called LETRA. Following the 2005 hurricane season, the Louisiana Department of Corrections and the National Institute of Corrections, a division of the U.S. Department of Justice, commissioned him to write the after-action incident report for how Louisiana's departments of safety and corrections responded to Katrina and Rita.
"Every major prison has evacuation plans," says Schwartz. "No one is perfectly prepared for everything, and while you can't judge just on the outcome, the real question is, 'Did you reasonably well prepare for predictable emergencies?' If the answer is no, well, there just isn't any good excuse."
The Beaumont federal penitentiary was never evacuated, and in not doing so, says Ortiz, the Federal Bureau of Prisons violated its own emergency preparedness guidelines.
"It's in their policy that when an emergency like this comes, they're supposed to evacuate," he says. "They have evacuation plans in their own contingency plan, and they violated that. You have to hold the entire Bureau of Prisons accountable. They had the means and they had the budget for emergencies...(but) they made the decision and they put us in harm's way when they didn't have to."
In light of the decision not to vacate, it would make sense to stock up on emergency and survival supplies. But according to Ortiz, hardly a finger was lifted.
"They did not anticipate buildings or the fences holding up," says Ortiz, "yet we were still going to be there. And they did not have supplies, food, water or generators. They didn't have any of that. They anticipated that they had enough food in their warehouse that they could manage for a couple of days, but when you lose power, you can't cook anything."
Ortiz says prison officials did not request additional generators or food for inmates or the staff. In fact, if Ortiz and his colleagues had not brought supplies to the facility from home the night before the hurricane, he says the officers would have had nothing.
"What (the BOP) did do ahead of time," he says, "was they had people with buses standing by in Bastrop just before the hurricane came to come in and get the inmates. If they lost the (prison) structure in the hurricane, they were going to drive in and pick up what inmates were left surviving and then take them wherever."
Schwartz says inmates are sometimes prone to exaggerate the truth, but union leaders like Ortiz are as solid as they come.
"What the union is unlikely to do," says Schwartz, "is invent facts that most of their own staff know are not true because their own membership would be very put off."
When Hurricane Rita struck the prison, Ortiz said he felt the walls shake as the rain pounded the building.
"We thought we were going to die," he says. "It was very traumatic for all the staff and the inmates. It was insane."
However, it was after the hurricane that things began to get even more bungled. According to the January/February 2006 American Federation of Government Employees union newsletter, The Government Standard, "Miscommunication and miscues marked the agency's response in the days following the storm. BoP officials turned away emergency generators. Other supplies offered by the National Guard were also turned away initially by management, only to be redirected back to Beaumont."
Ortiz remembers the first days after Rita with disgust.
"I don't understand why they did that," he says. "In those initial couple of days, there wasn't any food or water at all."
Ortiz corroborates most of the claims made by inmates and alleged in Sirak's lawsuit, although his timeline is somewhat shorter.
The power went out for about a week, he says, and many of the generators that were later brought in did not start at first and didn't work properly. Inmates were locked in their cells for about three weeks before the facility was once again deemed secure.
"The facilities are built to have air conditioning," says Ortiz, "but the priority was energy was for the lights in the unit and power for the alarms, so the air was very rare. There's no windows we can use to ventilate the buildings, and because of the humidity, the floors were sweating and the walls were wet. You can't really sleep in heat like that. They went for three or four days without any sleep. It was very stressful for the people at the penitentiary."
Only bag lunches were served to inmates, says Ortiz, and there was a serious shortage of water.
"That's why we couldn't use the toilets for two or three weeks," he says.
Instead, corrections officers collected the plastic bags that inmates had been given to hold feces and urine.
"It's not healthy," Ortiz says. "It's disgusting. And with the heat, oh, the smell."
As an added insult, the Bureau of Prisons refused to pay officers stranded at the prison any overtime, despite the fact they were working 24-hour shifts for more than a week before reinforcements arrived. Ortiz filed a grievance on the union's behalf just after the hurricane, but says he has not yet heard back or seen a nickel in overtime pay.
Ortiz also says that the prison is no better prepared than it was in 2005.
"We had another hurricane that came by this year," he says, "and they dropped the ball on that one. They didn't do any emergency procedures. They're no better prepared today. They've already said that if another hurricane comes, they will not evacuate."
As for what happened with Rita, Ortiz says the Bureau of Prisons "did jeopardize [inmates'] safety. We did put them in harm's way."
Rosalind Burbank Joseph was worried sick. For try as she might from her home in Albany, New York, she had trouble finding out in the days before Hurricane Rita struck what was happening with her husband, an inmate at Beaumont's federal penitentiary.
This was posted on the Bureau of Prisons Web site two days before the storm:
"Hurricane Rita is being closely monitored, and all necessary precautions are being taken to ensure the safety and well-being of staff and the Bureau's inmate population. Emergency preparations and plans are in place, but we do not release the status of possible actions related to those plans before they occur."
Frustrated, Joseph began trying to contact the prison itself.
"I called several times before the hurricane," she says. "The person at the prison would not give me very much information. He did say that they were not going to evacuate. I asked to speak to the warden, but that didn't work."
Then the hurricane hit, and for days all Joseph could do was wait and worry.
The Bureau of Prisons had set up an information line through the South Central Regional Office in Dallas for people to call to get information about inmates affected by the storm. Joseph called in within 36 hours after Rita passed.
"They kept reassuring me that everyone was perfectly fine and they were being treated even better than the people out in the free world," Joseph says.
But Joseph says she soon learned this was a lie.
"One thing the prison did get running quickly were the telephones," she says, "and my husband was able to call me three days after the hurricane. He told me that there was no water, it was extremely hot, it smelled terrible and it was just horrible inside. And during the day, I had been calling the number the BOP was providing for information and they were telling me the opposite, that they were getting hot meals, showers and that the conditions were good."
Likewise, newspapers quoting Bureau spokesmen in the days following the hurricane reported that generators were working and that inmates were getting hot meals and plenty of bottled water and ice.
Union president Isaac Ortiz says it was all a cover-up.
"It was B.S.," he says. "Total B.S. But see, the public relations person, they get a speech or whatever information they can give to the public, and it's already been screened before they tell anybody. And they're not going to say, 'We failed,' or 'We failed to respond.' They're not going to say they failed at anything. They're going to say everything is fine...I mean, this is Federal Bureau of Prisons, they don't tell on themselves."
According to Sirak, this was just one of several cover-ups.
He alleges that the prison suddenly began charging inmates $3 for medical attention whereas before the storm the same care had been free. Sirak claims the reason was to keep inmates from seeking medical help and to conceal injuries inflicted during and after the hurricane, in order to bury any proof that inmates were being treated poorly.
"Ajivin," who says he cannot use his real name because of the rules of the halfway house where he lives in Connecticut, claims he saw firsthand the lack of medical care after Hurricane Rita.
"Everyone was mad and kicking the doors," he says, "and people had medical problems and medical would come like once a day, maybe. And [the staff] didn't have the right medicines."
Ajivin says his cellmate had diabetes and was used to getting insulin shots and having his blood sugar checked twice a day.
"He got his insulin a day after (Rita hit), but he didn't get it every day," says Ajivin. "I was giving him the little bit of food that I did get, trying to keep his pressure up. Because it kept dropping. I didn't even eat, I fasted about three and a half days, giving him my peanut butter to keep his pressure up. The storm was nothing; it was the aftermath that was horrible. I knew his pressure was dropping because he kept getting the shakes and I kept telling him, 'Hold on, hold on.'"
After about two weeks, says Ajivin, inmates emerged from their cells for the first time and were allowed to shower.
"Everybody looked crazy," he says. "Everybody grew hair all over, their eyes were wide open, looked like they were starving, stinking, people had skin rashes from the feces. I was like, 'Man, I can't believe this.'"
The shower water, he says, "stung and was brown and smelly. But we had no real choice; either take it or don't take a shower at all. And then we had to put on the same clothes again."
He and other inmates say the only medicine they received was a couple of aspirin.
In the lawsuit, Sirak claims that medical staff refused to perform any diagnosis on inmates with complaints, only offering over-the-counter drugs to treat symptoms and ignoring the underlying causes.
"I think that the medical staff was ordered from above to do this," says Sirak, "to show that everybody is happy and there's no problems here. Their thinking is that if they can't point to any diagnostics, then there's no evidence of any harm happening. They were trying to kill the evidence at the source."
It was about a year and a half after Hurricane Rita that Garrett Deetz decided to try to seek justice. So, he went to the prison's law library, downloaded the proper administrative tort claim to file against the Bureau and filled it out.
The way it works, according to Deetz, is that inmates file the form with the regional office, whose lawyers investigate the claim and then make a decision.
As per the prison's rules, Deetz gave the form to a corrections officer, whose job is to look over all legal mail, who then was supposed to put it in the outgoing mail. Time went by, but Deetz never received an answer.
"A lot of the times they weren't putting them in the mail," says Deetz. "They said they lost my first tort claim, so I had to file another one."
Sirak says Deetz's story is quite common, another example of the Bureau of Prisons trying to silence inmates and cover-up what happened after Hurricane Rita.
According to the lawsuit, prison officials tried to keep inmates from accessing the legal library to obtain the proper tort forms. Then, when and if a prisoner did get the paperwork, staff held the form and refused to send it out.
Enrico Diaz Hawkins is an inmate at the federal facility in Pollock, Louisiana. He was moved there from Beaumont after the hurricane. In a letter he mailed to Sirak, Hawkins detailed the hurdles he encountered.
"Immediately after the hurricane," Hawkins writes, "many of us inmates questioned the legality of our safety, sanitation, and environmental conditions. We were told that all of the administrations actions were legal and discouraged from pursuing the issue any further with the threat of 'Diesel Therapy'...and the implied threat of bodily harm."
"Diesel therapy," an inmate term, according to Sirak, is when an inmate is shipped to one facility after another, with his personal property never catching up to him. It is considered a severe punishment.
"I personally tried to file an administrative remedy form about a month after Hurricane Rita," writes Hawkins, "and was told by my counselor...and my unit manager...that they lost the form and that it was in my best interest not to pursue the matter any further...I was already stressed out from the inhumane conditions that I was forced to suffer through during the hurricane and its aftermath and I was put under further duress by the implied threat from those in authority over me so out of fear and prudence I decided to leave the issue alone until I was far away from USP Beaumont."
Sirak alleges in the lawsuit that prison officials punished inmates by taking them off a good prison job or transferring them to a cell with an inmate with an anger management problem to make their lives more difficult. Sirak also states that prison staff invaded cells and took inmates' legal papers as well as instituted lockdown during which time inmates could not mail letters.
"All of this was done under the radar screen," says Sirak. "For example, no one can argue the BOP has the right to take a person from one cell to another. On its face it's neutral. And all the record shows is the transfer, not that the person's new cellmate is an animal from hell. And that's what's so insidious. They're very adept at doing these things that leave no trace of prejudice."
When Deetz finally was able to submit his tort claim 21 months after the hurricane, he listed the Bureau's failure to evacuate, the dehydration, the accumulation of feces in his cell, the inability to bathe for weeks, the unbearable heat and the fear that he had been left, locked up in his cell, to die.
Three months later, he received a letter from Jason Sicler, Regional Counsel for the Bureau in Dallas. In his letter, Sicler denied all of Deetz's contentions.
"An investigation into your allegations could not substantiate your claim," Sicler wrote. "The review of this matter revealed FCC Beaumont (USP) staff took appropriate measures to alleviate the conditions caused by the natural disaster. All available supplies were issued to both staff and inmates as they became available...Therefore, there is no evidence you sustained any personal injury or property loss caused by the neglect or wrongful act or omission of any Bureau of Prison employee...."
Deetz couldn't believe it.
"I was like, 'That's crazy,'" says Deetz. "They denied everything. It makes you think, 'They screwed us and they're going to get away with it.' It makes you think, 'They're the federal government and you can't beat them.'"
"Thank God for Norman's lawsuit."
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