Civil rights and prisoners' groups say the decision by the Federal Bureau of Prisons not to evacuate inmates in its Beaumont facility as Hurricane Harvey approached left hundreds of prisoners stranded without food or water, which has also led to a whirlwind of rumors.
Now those groups, which include U.S. Representative Lloyd Doggett of Austin, are demanding answers from the Bureau of Prisons.
The fire was stoked by unsubstantiated claims shared by the wife of an inmate with a news outlet called Left Voice. In an interview that ran September 4, Rachel Villalobos said that another wife of another inmate told her that two inmates died, and that the prisoners were reduced to drinking toilet water. The story took off, and the Bureau of Prisons has denied that two inmates died.
Villalobos told Left Voice:
"After Hurricane Harvey, I was told they are very low on food and water. They are getting two sandwiches a day. These are grown men. They need more than two sandwiches....They are using the restroom in bags so they can save the toilet water.
They all have been drinking the toilet water since they have been low on water supply. He said that even though the toilet water has bacteria, at this moment he didn’t care and the other prisoners didn’t care either. They are really thirsty. He said he would drink anything. He told me that if this water didn’t kill him, the conditions were going to kill him. That’s how bad it is."
But the Bureau of Prisons said on its website September 5 that the Beaumont Federal Corrections Complex, which houses three units, was "receiving deliveries and there is ample bottled water and food supplies for inmates and staff. The facility continues to provide 24-hour medical coverage for all inmates."
The BOP's August 31 report also conflicts with Villalobos's claims:
"There was some flooding in and around areas of the FCC where inmates are not being housed, however, today the water has begun to recede. All inmates remain safe in their housing units.
Although the storm impacted the city water supply, the FCC is utilizing its own reserved water supply. The FCC has experienced intermittent power, however, it is adequately maintained with generator backup power when needed. There is an adequate food and water supply for both inmates and staff."
But suspending all visitation at the facility "until further notice," as the BOP site currently states, probably isn't going to help quash the rumors.
The conflicting stories also played out in the state correctional system, where at least one inmate's wife said her husband's facility was completely flooded, which the Texas Department of Criminal Justice denied, offering photos that showed no flooding.
All the horror stories were apparently enough for Representative Doggett to seek information on the inmates' well-being, joining the ACLU of Texas, the Texas Civil Rights Project, the Prison Justice League and the Austin-based prison reform group Grassroots Leadership, which issued a press release Monday saying prisoners were ignored despite advance warning of devastating conditions. Beaumont was struck by Harvey only after the storm caused historic flooding in Houston.
“Due to several reports of alarming conditions at the Beaumont facility, I have inquired with the Federal Bureau of Prisons to express my concern and obtain clarification about what actions are being undertaken to protect the well-being of prisoners and staff and to restore the facility to pre-disaster conditions,” Doggett said in the release.
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Natalia Cornelio, the criminal justice reform director with the Texas Civil Rights Project, cited reports of "people being forced to defecate in bags," among other allegations, saying any poor conditions or prisoner suffering could have been avoided. She's quoted in the release as saying:
"These prisons have been on notice of the potential for this type of disaster for at least a decade and have had multiple opportunities to plan and prepare accordingly. The Bureau of Prisons and the Texas Department of Criminal Justice are tasked with the responsibility of ensuring the safety and meeting the basic human needs of those in their custody. They have not done their jobs and we will hold them accountable.”
Certainly, the BOP's Beaumont facility has come under weather-related scrutiny before, with hundreds of inmates filing suit following Hurricane Rita in 2005.
We reached out to the BOP for comment and will update accordingly.