Longform

A Prison Cover-up During Hurricane Rita

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"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."

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Chris Vogel
Contact: Chris Vogel