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Do Texas prison lockdowns limit inmates’ food, water? Families, officials disagree

by Aria Jones, The Dallas Morning News | September 16, 2023 at 11:00 p.m.
Texas locked down all state jails and prisons Wednesday, Sept. 14, 2023, in response to growing cases of contraband and drug-related homicides. Pictured here is the O.B. Ellis Unit, a state prison in Huntsville. (Vernon Bryant/Dallas Morning News)

A statewide prison lockdown the Texas Department of Criminal Justice attributed to recent homicides and contraband behind bars, has also meant those incarcerated haven't had enough food or water, dozens of people with loved ones behind bars told The Dallas Morning News.

Family members say they are worried about rising tensions and increased dangers in Texas' 78 prisons. They say inmates, who still have access to phones and tablets, told them they don't get enough calories and have less access to water at facilities that don't have air conditioning.

Prison officials said inmates get three meals a day, along with ice, water and fans to deal with the heat. The systemwide lockdown, which included Texas jails and prisons, was a rare but necessary step to crack down on contraband and drug-related homicides, a spokesperson with the prison system said.

Seventeen people died in TDCJ facilities since the lockdown started for the population of about 129,800, a prison spokeswoman said. The manner of death is still pending for three. None were homicides and 10 were "natural deaths," said spokeswoman Amanda Hernandez. Four people died by suicide.

Before the Sept. 6 lockdown, five inmates were killed between Aug. 30 and Sept. 5, Hernandez said. This year, at least 16 homicides have been reported at TDCJ facilities, up from seven in 2022, Hernandez said.

Some Texas prisons are back up and running but most remain on lockdown.

The killings behind bars are "extremely troubling," said Michele Deitch, director of the Prison and Jail Innovation Lab at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at UT Austin.

"Yes, the agency has to get a hold of that," Deitch said. "The question is whether they are using a hammer rather than a scalpel to deal with it."

Without being a part of TDCJ or knowing the full circumstances, Deitch said she didn't want to second-guess the decision, but said the lockdown raises questions about whether the department could have addressed each facility differently based on its security needs.

A lockdown is a "very extreme measure" that can stop some problems while creating new ones, Deitch said. Typically in a lockdown, prisoners can't leave their cells for meals, recreation, showers, work and other activities. They don't have access to programs or family visits.

"You can imagine that, the stress and the tension and the anxiety," Deitch said. "Not to mention, the lack of preparation through programming. All of that is very, very problematic."

Meeting inmate needs

Legal requirements for prisons don't change during lockdowns and prisoners are still entitled to appropriate amounts of food and having their health and safety protected, Deitch said. "The agency just needs to find ways to meet those needs in other ways and whether or not that's happening is very much a debate," Deitch said.

Hernandez, the TDCJ spokesperson, said all protocols to deal with the heat are being followed and cool showers along with respite from the heat are available upon request. Temperatures were scorching when the lockdown began but have cooled in recent days.

"Meals are provided three times a day, even during the lockdown," Hernandez said. "At the beginning of the lockdown, there were some delays in meals being provided later than normal. This has been resolved."

People who said they were relatives or loved ones of inmates described to The News meager meals with small portions and odd combinations arriving at inconsistent times, along with a lack of clean water and airflow in cells that do not have air conditioning.

Some said drugs and killings in prisons should be addressed, but they also said they believed inhumane conditions exacerbated by the lockdown could harm or kill inmates. Numerous people described inmates being made delirious by the conditions or said they feared the lockdown leading to violence among stressed inmates and prison staff.

A few people mentioned that inmates started fires at the Ferguson Unit, which is 20 miles north of Huntsville. The prison spokeswoman said officials haven't heard possible fires but said she would look into whether they happened.

Several people in phone calls, emails, text messages and voicemails said they were reluctant to name inmates, fearing a news report could spur retaliation.

They described meals including a corn tortilla with a "slap" of peanut butter and jelly, a biscuit and boiled eggs, a small box of cereal, cornbread and prunes. Meals have been smaller than usual, they said. Those behind bars didn't receive all the mentioned food at once. But one or two items at a time.

"They are really torturing these men," Teresa Jefferson said early in the lockdown. "I mean, they got a biscuit today. A biscuit with nothing else."

Jefferson said her son has been imprisoned for about 15 years. The News verified the man she said is her son is in the Hughes Unit in Gatesville, but Jefferson asked he not be identified for his safety.

"It's horrible," she said. "I've never been this worried."

Jefferson, who said she was a nurse, described the lockdown as "living torture," with inmates also unable to access commissary where they could purchase more food and other resources.

"I just can't believe the state of Texas is allowing this," Jefferson said.

Searches for contraband

Most inmate killings this year are tied to illegal drugs, TDCJ said. In 2018, the department recorded an average 93 incidents of illegal drugs per month; so far this year, it has seen a monthly average of 363 such incidents.

When "comprehensive searches" of units are complete, the units are resuming normal operations, Hernandez said. Of 98 facilities, 38 showed as having resumed normal operations on the department's website Thursday afternoon. Hutchins State Jail in Dallas remains on lockdown. Several units family members mentioned did not appear on the list.

In a Facebook post, TDCJ said five disposable water bottles confiscated were full of a liquid that tested positive for K2, synthetic marijuana, in preliminary testing. In another post, the prison system said items including a bag of pills, five cell phones and several charging cords were confiscated at a state jail.

Several people who said they knew prisoners told The News they believed inmates were punished for action by the staff, who they said bring contraband into prisons.

"TDCJ recognizes that dangerous contraband is brought into our facilities through numerous methods," Hernandez said.

Hernandez said to combat contraband, the department will increase security measures, including updated policies on what items are allowed, an anonymous tip line for contraband, digital mail and "comprehensive searches" of everyone entering facilities, including staff.

The department has posted on Facebook several times this year about staff accused of bringing contraband into facilities, and said some staff admitted to bringing cigarettes, cellphones, vape pens and K2, or synthetic marijuana inside prisons.

Deitch said prison staff introducing contraband is a "problem everywhere and Texas is no exception." When family couldn't visit during the COVID-19 pandemic and drugs still found their way into prison, she said.

Human rights

People in prisons are at risk of not having their basic needs met and lockdowns can make addressing those risks a greater challenge, Deitch said. She added they also have a right to meet with lawyers.

"Human rights issues are a concern every single day in a correctional environment," Deitch said. "And that's not a Texas-specific comment, that's true about every prison and jail in the entire country."

Tammy Bogard, who said her father is in prison, said that during the lockdown, "the few things that they hold on to, that they are supposed to be able to count on, are also evaporating."

Bogard said her 76-year-old father, Richard Bertrand, is a disabled Vietnam veteran who she expects to be released on parole in the coming weeks or months. He received a 50-year sentence in 1999 for aggravated sexual assault in Lubbock County, according to TDCJ records.

Bertrand is in the Powledge Unit near Palestine. The lockdown there was lifted this week.

Bogard said guilty people, including her father, should be sentenced to prison. But she said inmates still deserve civil rights.

The majority of people in prison are expected to someday be released and return to their communities, Deitch said. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services puts that number at 95 percent.

"We should all care about making sure that people are coming out better than they were when they went in and not sicker, not injured, not angrier, and not ill-prepared to be in our communities," Deitch said.

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