After Hurricane Harvey made landfall in Texas Aug. 25 and devastated Houston, it wreaked further havoc on the southeastern corner of Texas. Included in that damage was the city of Beaumont, home to about 120,000 residents, plus three federal prisons and three state ones.
Although rising floodwaters disrupted the municipal water system citywide for around a week by knocking out both its primary pumping station and its backup source of water, and evacuations were ordered or recommended in Beaumont and some surrounding areas, the federal prisoners remained in place. That decision, together with rumors of dire conditions at the Beaumont Correctional Complex, drew waves of criticism aimed at Bureau of Prisons (BOP) managers.
The most serious, but least verified, allegation made about conditions at the Beaumont federal prison complex came from the spouse of an inmate, who told the Trotskyite ezine Left Voice that she had learned from an email sent by the wife of another inmate that two Beaumont prisoners had died due to the storm. BOP officials flatly denied that, and follow-up accounts in more mainstream press outlets said that reporters had tried but failed to obtain names of the supposedly deceased inmates from inmate families spreading that rumor. The spouse who first aired the rumor of inmate deaths also said her husband had told her in a phone call that Beaumont inmates had been held in lockup for five straight days, in cells invaded by flood water. BOP officials admitted parts of the federal prison complex had been inundated, but denied any inmate housing had been affected.
Other complaints passed on in emails from inmates and their families included power outages, lack of adequate sanitation and air conditioning, limited drinking water and hot meals, and being unable to flush toilets, shower, or get clean laundry for about a week. They also griped that widespread roadway flooding in the Beaumont area prevented many prison staffers from making it into work during the worst parts of the flooding, hurting the availability of healthcare services.
On Sept. 11, a lengthy letter, prepared by a “legal response team” of the Prisoners Legal Advocacy Network (PLAN) run by the Delaware-New Jersey chapter of the National Lawyers Guild, was hand-delivered to the BOP regional director in Grand Prairie, Texas. It was also sent to BOP headquarters and the Beaumont warden. Besides containing allegations of hardships suffered by Beaumont inmates and demands for improvements, the letter contained statements from five Beaumont inmates and one inmate’s spouse. PLAN said it was also working on a filing to detail unconstitutional conditions at the three state penal facilities within Beaumont city limits, none of which was evacuated.
Joining the controversy, CNN commentator Van Jones, a former Obama staffer, filed an opinion piece unfavorably comparing inmate protections against the extreme weather conditions to efforts to evacuate the animals in Houston’s zoo and animal shelters. And Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-TX), a longtime House member who represents a district running from San Antonio to Austin (but not including Beaumont), announced on Sept. 11 he had sent a request to BOP seeking information on the “actions…undertaken to protect” both inmates and staff, and to “restore the facility to pre-disaster conditions.”
hristopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, (Middle Street Publishing, 2017), and College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014). He regularly contributes to The Huffington Post, New York Daily News, and Prison Legal News. He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com, PrisonEducation.com and Prisonerresource.com.