The Harris County Sheriff’s Office acknowledged that the jail lost water on Wednesday, but said it was later restored. “We continue to face challenges with operating the Harris County Jail during this disaster. As of now, all three buildings have electrical power,” the agency said in a statement on Twitter.
The Texas Jail Project has detailed accounts of jails across the state lacking water and power, including in Galveston, Smith, Polk, Victoria and Bowie counties. Incarcerated people, including many who have not been convicted of a crime, reported to the nonprofit that jails lacked blankets and left inmates in freezing conditions. Some raised concerns about access to medical services amid the crisis, especially for inmates who suffer from mental illness, seizures and diabetes, the nonprofit said in a tweet.
The challenges facing the jails is just one piece of a massive emergency unfolding in Texas, where millions of people lost power this week. As families have fought to make it through the harsh cold, in many cases without electricity or water, large-scale institutions such as hospitals and correctional facilities have also struggled to keep everyone safe as heat and water were cut off. At least 30 people have died in Texas following the winter storm. There have not been any reports of deaths from the power outages in jails.
It’s not just inmates suffering under conditions in Texas jails and prisons. According to the executive director of the union that represents corrections officers, guards have been sleeping in the facilities where they work for days because they were not allowed to go home, the Texas Tribune reported. Meanwhile, inmates have said they don’t have enough blankets to keep warm.
“Most of them are so cold that their bodies are numb,” Nichole, the wife of a Brazoria County inmate who was identified only by her first name, told the Tribune. “A lot of them fear to fall asleep because they think they’re going to freeze. They don’t think they’re going to wake up.”
The crisis has piled onto an already tense environment inside some Texas jails that had been struggling to deal with the coronavirus pandemic even before the loss of power and water this week.
Last week, before the storm struck, a federal judge asked officials in Harris County to review the cases of 2,000 inmates and consider releasing them to reduce crowding and allow for better social distancing as coronavirus cases spiked, the Houston Chronicle reported.
“We do not want to convert detention into a death sentence,” Chief U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal said at a hearing last week, the newspaper reported. “Nobody wants to turn the jail into a killing field.”
But the coronavirus concerns have taken a back seat to the dangerous conditions caused by the severe winter weather and failures in Texas’s power grid this week.
In the Harris County Jail, both White and Wooten told the Observer that they had been provided water bottles, but not enough to keep them hydrated and allow them to wash their hands or brush their teeth.
Krishnaveni Gundu, a co-founder of the Texas Jail Project, told The Washington Post that power and water had been largely restored throughout the Harris County Jail by early Friday, but inmates were still experiencing repercussions from the week of hardships.
“There is a boil-water advisory, which means they can’t shower or brush or wash their hands with that water,” she said.
Food and drinking water were also in short supply, according to reports from inmates.
“Food rations have been cut and many pods have not received adequate bottled water,” Gundu said. “Just one 16-ounce bottle with a meal. Some pods reported receiving two bottles of water all day yesterday.”
The sheriff’s office did not immediately return a message from The Post late Thursday.
Finis Prendergast, 42, who is incarcerated on an aggravated robbery charge at Harris County Jail, told HuffPost that he was given a single bite-size muffin and three small packets of peanut butter and jelly for Thursday’s breakfast.
“We’re in here freezing to death and starving,” he said.