When a natural disaster hits, those most unfortunate amongst us are the ones that get hurt the most. And when it is those that we are told we shouldn’t have any feelings about to begin with, that’s when the inhumanity of “civilized” people comes into being.
There are currently 1,812 inmates housed in Low facility at U.S. Penitentiary (USP) Beaumont in Texas, and they are totally dependent on the staff of the facility for their safety, care and well-being.
After hurricane Harvey hit Jefferson County Texas on August 29, letters from prisoners and their loved ones began making their way to Prisoners’ Legal Advocacy Network (PLAN). These letters established a convincing pattern and practice of inhumane living conditions and deprivation of adequate access to food, water, medical care, toilet facilities, and bathing facilities at USP Beaumont in the aftermath of hurricane Harvey.
PLAN is a volunteer-run group that is administered by the National Lawyers Guild (NLG) Delaware-New Jersey chapter, uniting lawyers, legal workers, law students, and jailhouse lawyers to advocate for constitutional conditions of confinement for prisoners. After PLAN received information on the situation at USP Beaumont, they acted swiftly in an attempt to stop the inhumane conditions that may still be ongoing at the present time. Their volunteer legal staff are continuing to consolidate the facts, evidence, and have put the FBOP on legal notice that they have a duty to preserve any materials that may be relevant to any future court action that might be brought.
On September 11, 2017 NLG attorneys served John Caraway, Regional Director of the FBOP with notice of reports received of “unconstitutional conditions of confinement from USP Beaumont prisoners and their loved ones” who have knowledge of the events. Prisoners’ friends and family gathered outside Caraway’s office in Grand Prairie TX at 2:30 p.m. while PLAN hand delivered the notice letter.
As soon as they were allowed to communicate, inmates began documenting their conditions and reaching out for help via Corrlinks, an email system used by federal prisoners. The six statements submitted as exhibits attached to PLAN’s notice letter allege that the days surrounding hurricane Harvey looked like the following inside the walls of USP Beaumont:
Day 1-2, August 28-29: The power went out and prisoners were locked in their cells without ventilation. Sack lunches were served. No prescribed medications were administered and no access given to medical staff.
Day 3, August 30: No power and prisoners still locked in their cells. The water went bad. Officers refused to open bean slots for any air circulation. Not all meals were being served, a last meal was given at noon with no warning.
Day 4, August 31: No power and prisoners still locked in their cells. Some prisoners receive two 16 oz. bottles of water per day (1 quart) and some prisoners receive two square bags with 4-8 ozs of water in them per day (8-16ozs).
Day 5, September 1: The power is back on and the bean slots were opened. Prisoners still locked in their cells. Meals start consisting of 8 crackers, two peanut butter packets and a pastry.
Day 6, September 2: Prisoners still locked in their cells. The water ration increases to 2 quarts per day. During the morning shift, prisoners are allowed out of their cell, some for up to 2 hours and those who were reportedly forgotten about by Counselor A. Brown and Captain Mack were out for just 20 minutes. Some were able to make calls to their loved ones but they have no use of e-mail or the post office.
Day 8, September 4: Prisoners still have no use of e-mail or the post office. They are not permitted to use e-mail until September 7th and there is a retroactive 5 e-mail per month restriction placed on them.
It is alleged that during the timeline above, inmates are told to drink the unsanitary water, they are urinating onto their cell floors and shitting into plastic bags while on lock down in their cells. The cells reach 100 degrees and inmates are living in their own defecation. They are not receiving all of their medications, and no one was administered any medications for the first two days after the storm. Some inmates were fainting from the lack of ventilation, food, and adequate water. It is reported that there have not been shower or laundry services, and they have had no access to commissary services for several weeks now.
Paul Stanley Holdorf, Supervising Attorney of PLAN, tells Idavox:
“PLAN has convened a legal response team to investigate and respond to widespread reports of unconstitutional conditions of confinement at the Federal Bureau of Prisons (FBOP) USP Beaumont facility and the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) Stiles Unit in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. We are appropriately concerned by the grievous human rights violations corroborated by numerous independent eyewitness reports. The remarkable consistency in these allegations establishes convincingly both the seriousness of the situation at these facilities, and the fact that rights-violating conditions persist even weeks after the storm. As the Beaumont region is known to be situated in a coastal floodplain vulnerable to tropical storms, FBOP’s and TDCJ’s inadequate preparation for this foreseeable event constitutes a clear failure to uphold their most basic due diligence obligations to ensure safe and humane conditions for the human beings entrusted to their care.”
In addition to the inadequate and neglectful operational decisions of this prison, it is alleged that paid staff such as Officer D. Johnson choose to perform cruel and unusual punishment on inmates. It is reported that Officer Johnson closed bean slots because “he didn’t want to hear the inmates”, then proceeded to go around and antagonize inmates with demeaning language and turn off their fans so they could not have any air circulation. One inmate writes “we were being treated as if we were punished and told we had to earn our way back to normal operations.”
It is alleged that the denial of access to communicate with the outside world predates the hurricane. A wife of an inmate currently in custody at USP Beaumont signed a statement claiming “Previous to the hurricane they have been in lockout for a very long period, I cannot even recall when was the last time I saw him, more than two months ago.”
Family members have started online petitions to try to bring attention to what they are calling a FBOP cover up of inhumane conditions. They remember and cite that similar mistreatment occurred in the aftermath of hurricane Rita in 2005.
Inmates who are authorized and scheduled to transfer out of USP Beaumont after the storm hit are being told by USP Beaumont staff that they cannot “devote resources to this type of issue.” All transfers have stopped until further notice.
In PLAN’s notice letter, they support the following demands being communicated to the FBOP by USP Beaumont prisoners and their loved ones:
1) Cease any disruption to, or delay of, the release of prisoners who are scheduled to proceed to halfway houses if facilities are operational and not flooded.
2) Provide at least five bottles of water per prisoner per day, turn on facility water periodically to enable the flushing of human waste, dispense all medication prescribed, provide sanitary wipes as long as showers remain non-operational.
3) If constitutional conditions of confinement cannot be immediately restored, evacuate prisoners to facilities that can uphold their rights to safe and human living conditions. This includes restoration of water that is safe to drink, functioning and adequate number of toilet facilities, unspoiled food in adequate quantities, mail delivery, access to community contact by phone, e-mail and standard visiting policies.
A parallel effort is going forward in relation to the prevailing conditions at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice’s (TDCJ) Stiles Unit in Beaumont. PLAN intends to file a separate notice with TDCJ this week, meanwhile continuing to consolidate the facts and evidence in relation to the conditions at USP Beaumont. Concerned prisoners and their loved ones can contact PLAN by e-mail at plan[at]nlg.org.
An inmate in custody at USP Beaumont writes,
“Inasmuch as we are powerless to change the events of recent date, we are determined to forge ahead and not be daunted by the adverse circumstances. We appreciate all of the love and concern that our loved ones have for us, and we reciprocate this love and concern. The fact that we made a mistake and were sentenced to prison as punishment for our mistake, doesn’t mean that we don’t care about those on the outside communities and the society at large. We do care and we pray for all those families that have been adversely affected by this catastrophic hurricane. Our pledge is to return to our communities as law abiding and contributing members of society.”
The following individuals were notified by PLAN on September 11, 2017:
Mr. John Caraway, Regional Director
South Central Regional Office
Federal Bureau of Prisons
344 Armed Forces Drive #300
Grand Prairie, TX 75051
Mr. Thomas R. Kane, Acting Director
Federal Bureau of Prisons
Central Office HQ
320 First Street, NW
Washington, DC 20534
Mr. Charles Daniels, Warden
United States Penitentiary Beaumont
6200 Knauth Road
Beaumont, TX 77705
Click here for PLAN’s announcement challenging deplorable prison conditions at USP Beaumont.
The National Lawyers Guild is the oldest and largest human rights bar association in the Unites States, and the only public interest bar organization that includes jailhouse lawyers as full participating members. You can write to PLAN at NLG- Delaware-NJ Chapter, c/o Prison Law Project, 132 Nassau Street, Room 922, New York, NY 10038 or send e-mail to plan[at]nlg.org.