A Prison Cover-up During Hurricane Rita

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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."

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Chris Vogel
Contact: Chris Vogel