Rachel Vergara has no plan as she approaches the security checkpoint for the Grand Prairie Armed Forces Reserve Complex on Monday afternoon. She's simply trying to get someone from the Bureau of Federal Prisons to hear her concerns about what she hears is happening inside the federal prison in Beaumont.
There are nearly two dozen families protesting here, prompted by reports and emails from their loved ones inside. Some have received emails; others have read reports of inhumane conditions after Hurricane Harvey devastated the area in late August.
Inmates say they are enduring triple-digit temperatures, dehydration and sewage seeping from overflowing toilets. Temporary toilets brought in by prison officials are overwhelmed and unusable. Some of the prisoners, reports say, have been defecating in bags because prison officials had been turning the water on only once a day to allow toilet flushing.
The prison officials had been providing only two bottles of water a day, and inmates haven’t been able to shower in more than a week, some say. The Houston Chronicle obtained emails from inmates, one of whom claimed they hadn’t received a warm meal five days after the hurricane struck.
"A lot [of] people aren’t listening to us," says Vergara, whose husband, David, has been in a medium-security prison in Beaumont for nearly four years.
Besides clean clothes, more water and hot meals, the protesters' demands for the inmates include renewed communications with prisoners and media tours of the facilities. They also want the federal prison bureau to evacuate all units in Beaumont until it can properly address any contamination, mold or other health hazards.
The Dallas Observer contacted the Federal Bureau of Prisons and was told to email questions. We’re still waiting for a response.
Vergara and other protesters planned to protest in front of the Bureau of Prisons' south central regional office inside the Grand Prairie complex, but a security guard stands in their way. "I'd like to see them get past me," the security guard said shortly before the protesters arrived.
They can't get past her. They halt in front of the security checkpoint threshold as the security guard storms out of her booth and yells, "You can’t block my traffic."
She stops in front of the protesters, standing just beyond the security checkpoint threshold. "Get off the property now," she says to the group milling in the entrance. Minutes later, they disperse and re-form in a parking lot outside the main gate.
One advocate, Cindy Spoon, says the group isn't here to cause trouble. "We're just trying to make sure, like everyone else, that their loved ones who were affected by Hurricane Harvey are safe," she says.
Dallas attorney Christine Hopkins says she thought protesters had the right to stand in front of the federal building. She'd been able to pass the security checkpoint earlier to deliver a complaint to the Bureau of Federal Prisons. Legal Advocacy Network drafted the complaint to ask prison officials to preserve all evidence regarding the condition of the prisons since the hurricane hit.
Hopkins said the Bureau of Federal Prisons evacuated a number of prisons, but not the Beaumont units. "It's a lack of planning that they are required to do by federal law," she says. "They are also trying to prevent the prisoners from communicating with the outside world."
The security guard prowls in front of the protesters for a few more moments before shutting both gates. The protesters realize they outnumber, her and she’s not carrying a visible weapon.
Some of them call the bureau's Grand Prairie office in an attempt to get one of the officials to go outside and speak with them. Their signs read: "He is not just an inmate. He is my daddy"; "Human Rights For All" and "My daddy's life matters."
Prison emails obtained by truthout.org reveal desperation from the inmates as the conditions continued worsen after the storm.
"Honey, it’s worse than bad here," one inmate wrote Sept. 2. "I need you to contact my family and tell them to call in Beaumont to have someone check on us. We are living in deplorable conditions in our cells. Our shit is gaggin' us, and we have no ventilation."
"The guards are having a standoff with us now," another inmate sent in a Sept. 3 email. "Now they are scared … with guns as everyone needs water …. I am sending this to you. I don’t know what they will do to us. Maybe they will lock us down."
Todd Bussert, a federal criminal defense attorney who operates the Federal Prison Blog, said in a Sept. 5 post that he had received an update about the Beaumont complex from the Federal Bureau of Prisons:
"At this time, the power has been restored to FCC Beaumont, and generator power is no longer being used. The Inmate Telephone System (ITS) is currently operational. The FCC continues to use its own reserve of water to operate the Complex. There is ample food and bottled water for inmates and staff."
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But the families standing with activists outside the Grand Prairie Armed Forces Reserve Complex tell a different story, one multiple news outlets and social media reports have repeated. Most protesters refuse to give their last names, saying they fear that prison officials will retaliate against their loved ones. They all reside in the Dallas area.
"We feel like our hands are tied," a woman named Jennifer says. "I'm not supposed to be here right now because my boss told me no, but I couldn’t stay away."
An older woman named Diane sits on her walker among the protesters. She has a friend who is locked up in Beaumont, and she drove from Fort Worth to be here this Monday afternoon. She says she’s been advocating for prisoner rights for quite some time, but she doesn’t want to give her friend’s name because, she claims, prison officials "punish people" who speak out.
"I just feel the system could be more humanitarian," she says. "It's not rehabilitating people, not when you’re putting people in solitary confinement for years. It’s an inhumane way to be treated. They’re not rehabilitated. They’re only beaten down."