Longform

A Prison Cover-up During Hurricane Rita

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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.

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Chris Vogel
Contact: Chris Vogel