A Prison Cover-up During Hurricane Rita

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Likewise, newspapers quoting Bureau spokesmen in the days following the hurricane reported that generators were working and that inmates were getting hot meals and plenty of bottled water and ice.

Union president Isaac Ortiz says it was all a cover-up.

"It was B.S.," he says. "Total B.S. But see, the public relations person, they get a speech or whatever information they can give to the public, and it's already been screened before they tell anybody. And they're not going to say, 'We failed,' or 'We failed to respond.' They're not going to say they failed at anything. They're going to say everything is fine...I mean, this is Federal Bureau of Prisons, they don't tell on themselves."

According to Sirak, this was just one of several cover-ups.

He alleges that the prison suddenly began charging inmates $3 for medical attention whereas before the storm the same care had been free. Sirak claims the reason was to keep inmates from seeking medical help and to conceal injuries inflicted during and after the hurricane, in order to bury any proof that inmates were being treated poorly.

"Ajivin," who says he cannot use his real name because of the rules of the halfway house where he lives in Connecticut, claims he saw firsthand the lack of ­medical care after Hurricane Rita.

"Everyone was mad and kicking the doors," he says, "and people had medical problems and medical would come like once a day, maybe. And [the staff] didn't have the right medicines."

Ajivin says his cellmate had diabetes and was used to getting insulin shots and having his blood sugar checked twice a day.

"He got his insulin a day after (Rita hit), but he didn't get it every day," says Ajivin. "I was giving him the little bit of food that I did get, trying to keep his pressure up. Because it kept dropping. I didn't even eat, I fasted about three and a half days, giving him my peanut butter to keep his pressure up. The storm was nothing; it was the aftermath that was horrible. I knew his pressure was dropping because he kept getting the shakes and I kept telling him, 'Hold on, hold on.'"

After about two weeks, says Ajivin, inmates emerged from their cells for the first time and were allowed to shower.

"Everybody looked crazy," he says. "Everybody grew hair all over, their eyes were wide open, looked like they were starving, stinking, people had skin rashes from the feces. I was like, 'Man, I can't believe this.'"

The shower water, he says, "stung and was brown and smelly. But we had no real choice; either take it or don't take a shower at all. And then we had to put on the same clothes again."

He and other inmates say the only medicine they received was a couple of aspirin.

In the lawsuit, Sirak claims that medical staff refused to perform any diagnosis on inmates with complaints, only offering over-the-counter drugs to treat symptoms and ignoring the underlying causes.

"I think that the medical staff was ordered from above to do this," says Sirak, "to show that everybody is happy and there's no problems here. Their thinking is that if they can't point to any diagnostics, then there's no evidence of any harm happening. They were trying to kill the evidence at the source."

It was about a year and a half after Hurricane Rita that Garrett Deetz decided to try to seek justice. So, he went to the prison's law library, downloaded the proper administrative tort claim to file against the Bureau and filled it out.

The way it works, according to Deetz, is that inmates file the form with the regional office, whose lawyers investigate the claim and then make a decision.

As per the prison's rules, Deetz gave the form to a corrections officer, whose job is to look over all legal mail, who then was supposed to put it in the outgoing mail. Time went by, but Deetz never received an answer.

"A lot of the times they weren't putting them in the mail," says Deetz. "They said they lost my first tort claim, so I had to file another one."

Sirak says Deetz's story is quite common, another example of the Bureau of Prisons trying to silence inmates and cover-up what happened after Hurricane Rita.

According to the lawsuit, prison officials tried to keep inmates from accessing the legal library to obtain the proper tort forms. Then, when and if a prisoner did get the paperwork, staff held the form and refused to send it out.

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Chris Vogel
Contact: Chris Vogel