The Texas Department of Criminal Justice announced late Monday night it would start evacuating prisoners from its Vance and Jester III units. The two prisons — well, technically, Jester III is a “prison farm” — share a plot of land west of Sugar Land, in an area hit by historic flooding.
On Sunday and Monday, officials issued mandatory and voluntary evacuations for swaths of Fort Bend County and Sugar Land near the Brazos River, which is set to reach record-high levels. At its closest point, the property housing Vance and Jester III is less than a mile from its banks.
The Department of Criminal Justice estimates around 1,400 prisoners in Vance and Jester will be affected by the evacuation. It says prisoners will “be sent to facilities in South Texas” but doesn't specify which ones. Jason Clark, a spokesman for the agency, didn’t return requests for comment.
It isn’t the first time Harvey has sent prison officials scrambling. On Saturday, 4,500 prisoners had to be moved from the Stringfellow, Ramsey and Terrell units, which share a plot of land near Angleton in Brazoria County.
The Department of Criminal Justice has set up an emergency center in Huntsville and says it's bringing in extra food, water and staff. Any family members seeking information on a prisoner’s whereabouts can call the agency 24/7 at 936-437-4927 or at 1-844-476-1289.
Civil rights groups have criticized Texas prisons in the past for not moving inmates during hurricanes. “Shelter from the Storm?” a 2009 report from the Texas Civil Rights Project, slammed Galveston for not evacuating its county jail during Hurricane Ike.
Although the jail never collapsed, the Texas Civil Rights Project said the ensuing chaos left the prison “unable to provide basic human necessities like water and sanitation to the prisoners in the weeks following Ike’s landfall.” These included “pre-trial detainees who have not been convicted of any crime, or people who have only committed minor offenses," the authors wrote.
“When the County decided to evacuate the island ‘to alleviate the suffering of the people,’” the report said, quoting a local disaster declaration from the time, “it did not consider the human beings in the jail ‘people.’”