Longform

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.

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Chris Vogel
Contact: Chris Vogel