As a massive winter storm brought freezing temperatures and widespread power outages to Texas, people incarcerated in jails there were left with no running water, no extra blankets and meager food.
“We’re in here freezing to death and starving,” Finis Prendergast, a 42-year-old National Guard veteran who has been incarcerated in a Harris County jail for 29 months, told HuffPost on Wednesday.
Mass power outages have plunged millions across the state into darkness with no heat, while temperatures have dropped below freezing in recent days. Officials still do not know when power will be broadly restored.
Prendergast said that after power went out at the jail around 2 a.m. on Monday, generators kicked in, but power was restored in a limited fashion: Only one of five rows of lights in the dorm lit up, and electrical outlets didn’t work. He said “cool air” has been blowing through the vents, and they weren’t given any dinner Monday night.
Nigel Patrick, a 37-year-old incarcerated in the same facility, confirmed Prendergast’s account that they hadn’t received dinner on Monday. He said that people had not received any extra blankets and were wrapped up “like a burrito” in the single thin blanket they already had.
On Tuesday night, corrections officers distributed 16-ounce water bottles, which people incarcerated at the facility now must use for drinking, brushing their teeth, and washing their hands. Meanwhile, the nine toilets in the facility — which are used by dozens of people — have been filled up to the brim with urine and feces.
“It’s unbearable,” Patrick said on the phone from the jail, speaking to HuffPost and Texas Jail Project advocates. “I’ve been holding my bowels, needing to defecate for two days.”
In response to questions, the Harris County sheriff’s office directed HuffPost to its statements on Twitter, which confirmed that its three jail facilities lost water pressure, but said they still had power. The office claimed the heat was “working fine” and that people in its jails got three meals a day and extra blankets.
The majority of people in jails across the United States are being held pretrial, many simply because they cannot afford bail. People in U.S. prisons are also disproportionately Black.
Due to widespread power outages, there was a risk that many vials of the COVID-19 vaccine — which must be kept in sub-zero freezers — would go bad, so Prendergast, Patrick and others in Harris County jails received the vaccine yesterday.
Harris County is far from the only jail or prison system to fail its incarcerated population amid the storm. The Texas Jail Project has relayed reports from people in jails in several other counties who have said they have no access to running water.
People in state prisons are also reporting that inadequate food and overworked prison staff amid the snowstorm, according to The Marshall Project.
Hundreds of women incarcerated at a federal medical prison in Fort Worth were also left “freezing” without heat amid the storm, the Forth Worth Star-Telegram reported.
Prendergast noted that they haven’t had a hot meal in days and instead of the usual bread with peanut butter and jelly in the mornings, today they got a small muffin — “incredibly tiny, like bite-size” — with three little packets of jelly and peanut butter. “What am I supposed to do with that?” he asked.
“This storm has really brought out some of the issues they have in the prison system,” said Tracy Williams, policy director at Texas Inmate Families Association, which represents families with loved ones in Texas prisons. He said his organization has been getting emails about people imprisoned losing power and spending days without heat. “It speaks to some much needed change.”
Meanwhile, freezing temperatures are set to continue in Texas in the coming days.