When an unusually heavy winter storm blanketed much of Texas with snow, knocking out electricity to millions of homes and leaving many struggling to find clean water, one sector of the population was particularly vulnerable: inmates at the state’s largest county jail.
Raul Carreon, a pretrial inmate at the Harris County Jail, said it became freezing cold and “pitch black” when the power went out at the lockup late on Feb. 14. Then, he said, they lost water pressure, so toilets wouldn’t flush, leading to “feces and urine backing up in the commodes.”
A boil water notice was issued for the region, but Harris County inmates didn’t have that option and had to risk using water straight from the taps, Carreon said.
“Sanitation is very minimal, the smell here reeks of urine and feces,” said Carreon, who spoke to The Associated Press during a phone call Feb. 19 arranged by the Texas Jail Project, an advocacy organization. He said he just stayed in his bunk “because I don’t want to deal with what is going on here.”
Krish Gundu, co-founder and executive director of the Texas Jail Project, said her organization checked in with inmates in at least 20 Texas counties in the wake of the storm and that the conditions Carreon described were the norm — even worse in smaller counties.
“People are very cold, they are freezing, no extra blankets, there isn’t enough food,” Gundu said. Some inmates were instructed to cover their unflushed toilets with cardboard to mask the stench, she said.
Carreon — who according to jail records, is scheduled for trial in April on eight charges including aggravated robbery with a deadly weapon — said he lives in a pod with more than 20 men.
He said food was rationed in the days after the storm, and that some meals were just cornbread or a peanut butter and jelly sandwich with water. Tensions were running high in his unit, due to the small meals and restricted access to phones. All inmates receive five free phone calls a week, but to make more calls — or to buy food — they need money in their commissary accounts. Carreon said his mother couldn’t afford to top up his account because she lives on government financial assistance.
Elizabeth Rossi, a senior attorney with the Civil Rights Corps — a nonprofit that aims to fight injustices in the American legal system — said she received multiple reports of jail food being rationed after the storm and said the restricted access to phones at Harris County means inmates struggled to “check if their loved ones are okay and let them know that they are not.”
“I think this highlights how unprepared Texas and Texas jails are for climate crisis like these that are going to be happening increasingly in the future,” Rossi said.
Gundu said her organization was working to deliver water and deposit money in commissary accounts. Many inmates, she said, were unable to communicate with family for a week.
The Harris County Sheriff’s Office denied it had restricted…