They Talk That Freedom Matters

By: Brenna Fitzpatrick

Just a month after Hurricane Katrina hit, and while many of those who had been detained in Orleans Parish Prison during Katrina were still missing, Hurricane Rita ripped through portions of southeastern Texas, southwestern Louisiana, and the Florida Keys. The hurricane devastated the Federal Correctional Complex (“FCC”) in Beaumont, Texas, ripping off large portions of the facility’s roof and left the facility without electricity or potable water for over a month.[1] Despite a court-mandated countywide evacuation order issued two days before the storm hit,[2] inmates in the high-security United States Penitentiary unit of the Federal Correctional Complex were not evacuated prior to or following the hurricane.

According to the class action lawsuit that followed, the loss of electricity was exacerbated by a heat streak, with the temperature reaching over 100 degrees on sixteen of the days without power, and over 90 on another seven.[3] The humidity caused the heat index to be even higher, with the temperature inside of the facility even higher still. It was so hot inside that floor wax melted and the ceilings rained condensation.[4] Meanwhile, the plumbing ceased working, and an intense stench filled the air.[5]

During the first three days following the storm, the inmates were locked in their cells, deprived of food, potable water, and medicine.[6] The water the inmates did receive was foul-smelling, brown, and contaminated with floating matter, but inmates drank it anyways because of the heat.[7] When the inmates did get food, they received no more than two sandwiches a day until power was restored (after more than a month), and the sandwiches were often made with moldy bread.[8] They began receiving one liter of potable water daily, an insufficient amount to keep hydrated in such extreme heat.[9] For the first two weeks, the inmates were not allowed to shower, and when they finally were, the water ran cold and brown, and immediately began to cause problems, including burning rashes and boils, for which the incarcerated people did not receive medical attention.[10] After showering, the inmates had to put back on the same filthy clothes they had been wearing.[11]

Because of these unsanitary and extreme living conditions, many incarcerated suffered “physical injuries as the result of these events, including episodes of high stress; high blood pressure and heart disease; respiratory and lung disorders (from alleged exposure to ammonia from urine and feces, and to mold); heat exhaustion and heat stroke; dehydration and malnutrition; Heliobactor Pylori (H.Pylori) infection (due to alleged exposure to human waste); diarrhea (due to alleged e-coli and salmonella exposure); blood stream infections; sleep deprivation; muscle atrophy (due to inactivity during lockdown); worsening of existing medical conditions; constipation; and pain from hunger. They also allege[d] mental injuries, including post traumatic stress disorder; suicidal tendencies; depression; insomnia; and delusions.”[12]

The case was dismissed. The hundreds of people who suffered through atrocious, inhumane conditions for over a month never received a remedy, or so much as an acknowledgment they had been wronged in any way.

Which may surprise you if you are not familiar with the framework of prisoners’ “rights.” It is almost impossible for prisoners, particularly federal prisoners, to vindicate their rights after being exposed to inhumane conditions after hurricane and flooding events because of the unique way jurisdictional (e.g., sovereign immunity and the statue of limitations), procedural (e.g., the barriers imposed by the Prison Litigation Reform Act, which has been decried as a violation of human rights by Human Rights Watch[13]), and substantive law (e.g., in the early 1990s, the Supreme Court, led by Scalia, drastically altered Eighth Amendment jurisprudence by introducing a subjective component to cruel and unusual conditions claims) have combined to deprive prisoners of justice.

And when people are systematically denied access to justice, injustice tends to fester. (Or does it explode?).

Officials at FCC Beaumont learned after Rita they could expose prisoners to horrendous conditions with impunity. So, prior to and following Hurricane Harvey, inmates at the Federal Correctional Complex in Beaumont were not evacuated. Shortly after the hurricane made landfall, prisoners and their families began reporting horrendous conditions: “According to at least seven relatives of prisoners at the Beaumont Federal Correctional Complex, some cells filled with water calf-deep, temperatures spiked to nearly 100 degrees as air conditioners failed, and prisoners wrapped towels over their noses to avoid the stench of sewage from backed-up toilets.” The Prisoners Legal Advocacy Network has since served the Federal Bureau of Prisons with notice of reports of unconstitutional conditions of confinement.[14]

If we accept that hurricanes and flood events are not “acts of God,” that “there is no such thing as a natural disaster,” then we are faced with the corollary: the conditions in FCC Beaumont are a form of state violence, imposed with impunity and fortified by a morally bankrupt legal system.

 

 

[1] Spotts v. United States, 613 F3d 559, 563 (5th Cir. 2010).

[2] Chris Vogel, A Prison Cover-up During Hurricane Rita, Houston Press, March 2008, http://www.houstonpress.com/news/a-prison-cover-up-during-hurricane-rita-6575872.

[3] Spotts v. United States, 613 F3d 559, 564 (5th Cir. 2010).

[4] Id.

[5] Id.

[6] Id.

[7] Id.

[8] Id.

[9] Id.

[10] Id.

[11] Id.

[12] Spotts v. United States, 613 F3d 559, 563–65 (5th Cir. 2010).

[13] See, e.g., Human Rights Watch, No Equal Justice: The Prison Litigation Reform Act in the United States (2009), Human Rights Watch, https://www.hrw.org/report/2009/06/16/no-equal-justice/prison-litigation-reform-act-united-states (“[F]or those in prisons, jails, and juvenile facilities in the United States, the promise of equal justice is illusory. The Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA), passed by Congress in 1996, denies equal access to the courts to the more than 2.3 million incarcerated persons in the United States. The PLRA subjects lawsuits brought by prisoners in the federal courts to a host of burdens and restrictions that apply to no other persons. [. . . .] These restrictions apply not only to persons who have been convicted of crime, but also to pretrial detainees who have not yet been tried and are presumed innocent. Human Rights Watch is not aware of any other country in which national legislation singles out prisoners for a unique set of barriers to vindicating their legal rights in court.”).

[14] Prisoners Legal Advocacy Network, Notice to Federal Bureau of Prisons Concerning Post-Harvey Conditions, National Lawyers Guild – Delaware-New Jersey Chapter,https://www.nlg.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/09/09-11-2017-DE-NJ-NLG-PLAN-Notice-to-FBOP-re-Post-Harvey-Conditions-w.-Exhibits.pdf.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *