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'Animals at the zoo get better treatment': Inside Texas' frigid jails

The brutal winter storm has caused abominable conditions inside jails and prisons, including overflowing toilets and no heat or running water.
Harris County Jail in Houston.
Harris County Jail in Houston.Google Maps

By the time Duane Waddy made a phone call from the Victoria County Jail in Texas Thursday night, it had been three days since he had access to running water.

The toilets in his 24-man dorm were rancid. The showers were being used as urinals. He said more than 11 hours had passed since he last received a bottle of water.

“They give us one bottle a day and tell us to make it last,” Waddy, 35, told NBC News by phone.

The massive winter storm that walloped the South this week left thousands of Texans without power and running water. Inside the walls of several Texas prisons and jails, incarcerated people have faced abominable conditions, according to interviews with inmates, family members and advocates.

Many facilities have gone long stretches with no heat, leaving inmates shivering in their cells. A lack of running water has caused toilets to overflow and people to go days without a shower. Advocates say the unsanitary conditions coupled with the threat of the coronavirus has fueled concerns of deadly outbreaks.

“We could have prevented this mounting public health crisis by taking a smart approach to depopulating our jails,” said Krish Gundu, executive director of the Texas Jail Project, an inmate advocacy group. “But we chose not to. Now we have to pay the price.”

The vast majority of people locked up in county jails have been accused of crimes but have not yet had a chance to go to trial or otherwise fight the charges.

The situation is particularly acute at the overcrowded Harris County Jail in Houston, the third-largest in the nation, where advocates say some inmates have been forced to sleep on cold floors near clogged toilets.

In the weeks before the storm struck, the sheriff himself warned of a possible health crisis as a backlog of criminal cases due to Covid-19 led to an ever-growing jail population.

In a Jan. 12 court filing related to a federal lawsuit over Harris County's cash bail system, lawyers for Sheriff Ed Gonzalez pleaded for help in relieving the overcrowding.

“The jail is bursting at the seams,” his attorneys wrote in the filing. “Something must be done to reduce the population.”

Many of the inmates, the lawyers added, “ought to be subject to release, but releases have been slow in coming, if they come at all.”

Alec Karakatsanis, executive director of the Washington-based nonprofit Civil Rights Corps, said the conditions playing out now underscore the risk in keeping so many people housed inside jails during a pandemic.

“The lack of running water, heat and food — they all take on a totally different character in an overcrowded jail,” said Karakatsanis, whose group was among several to sue Harris County in 2016 over its cash bail system.

A federal judge ruled in 2019 that the county's bail system was unconstitutional, paving the way for misdemeanor defendants to be more quickly released from custody regardless of their financial state.

But this past March, as the coronavirus was spreading across the country, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott signed an executive order focused on county and municipal jails that blocked the release of anyone accused or ever convicted of a violent crime who could not pay cash bail.

“We’ve been worried that if there’s any other shock to the system, that disaster can turn into a catastrophe,” Karakatsanis said. “That’s what we’re seeing now.”

Jason Spencer, spokesman for the Harris County Sheriff’s Office, said the jail has experienced “brief periods of having no power and/or plumbing,” but the temperatures never dipped below the state minimum of 65 degrees.

The facility had full power and good water pressure as of Friday afternoon, Spencer added, and there were enough beds for everyone.

Conditions have also been bleak in several state prisons, which house people who have been convicted of crimes.

The McConnell Unit in Bee County has gone without water for multiple days and the power has flickered on and off, according to relatives of people housed there.

Roxanna McGee said her husband had little to protect himself from the frigid air in his cell until she called the facility earlier this week and they provided him with an extra jacket and blanket.

“He’s from Saint Louis. He knows what cold weather is like,” McGee said. “When he calls me, I can hear it in his voice that he’s cold.”

McGee said her husband told her their meals have largely consisted of cold sandwiches, the toilets are overflowing and the inmates don’t have the ability to wash their hands or take a shower.

“He’s saying it’s disgusting. It’s gross,” McGee said. “What my husband is going through, it’s inhumane.”

The Clemens Unit in Brazoria County has also gone without heat and running water for multiple days, according to inmates’ family members.

The wife of one inmate said she thinks her husband would have been in dire shape were it not for his hot pot. The woman, who identified herself only by her first name, Nichole, because she fears retaliation against her husband, said he had been heating up water he rationed, pouring it into bottles and stuffing them into his socks at night to warm his body.

“It’s the only way he can get some relief,” she said.

She said he told her that a flimsy piece of cardboard was being used to block the cold drafts entering his unit through a broken window.

“The animals at the zoo get better treatment than the inmates in our prison system,” Nichole said.

Jeremy Desel, a spokesman for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, said it is used to dealing with extreme weather, but this storm presented a unique challenge. “The difference here is the statewide scope of the emergency,” Desel said.

Roughly a third of the state’s 102 prison facilities lost power earlier this week, Desel said, and the same amount experienced disruptions in their water supply. But potable water was made available at all the facilities, and those that lost power had backup generators. Desel could not say how many institutions had gone without heat.

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By Friday morning, all of the facilities had power restored and only a handful were without running water, he said.

The conditions have also taken a toll on prison staffers.

Jeff Ormsby, executive director of the corrections officers union in Texas, said many officers have been forced to work 18-hour days with minimal breaks.

“The staff get double-whammied,” Ormsby said. “They’re there at work freezing — just like the inmates are — and then they have to worry about their families at home.”

At the Victoria County Jail, the conditions have led incarcerated people like Waddy to fear a wider Covid-19 outbreak.

He said corrections officers have come around once a day with buckets of water to flush the toilets. But he hasn’t showered in days and the inmates are provided with no cleaning supplies or hand sanitizers, Waddy said.

“The smell is horrible,” he said.

The Victoria County Sheriff’s Office did not respond to a request for comment.

Waddy, who was arrested on a drug possession charge, said he tested positive for Covid-19 in late January, but he has largely recovered from his symptoms. He’s now worried about others in the facility and is hopeful that running water will return soon.

On Thursday, corrections officers told him they expected it to be back within 24 hours.

“I pretty much can’t do anything about it,” Waddy said, “but stay strong and pray and hope that it’ll come to an end real soon.”