Longform

A Prison Cover-up During Hurricane Rita

Page 5 of 7

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."

KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Chris Vogel
Contact: Chris Vogel