Courts

Frozen in Place: How Winter Storms Push Texas Jails and Prisons to the Brink

A message scrawled on the back of a sign across the street from the Dallas County Jail echoes the cries of the prisoners.
A message scrawled on the back of a sign across the street from the Dallas County Jail echoes the cries of the prisoners. Mike Brooks
When Jerome Van Zandt was booked into Harris County Jail in November 2020, he was optimistic. “There’s no way I’ll be here more than three months,” he told himself. A Navy veteran with 20 years of service, he had been caught with less than a gram of crack cocaine and charged with possession and evading arrest.

As he told Houston Public Media in 2021, he ran because, “to be honest with you, I feared for my life, being an African American male and not feeling that I'm favored by the police." His bond was $120,000, a sum far above what he and his family could afford.

As he recounts his first days in jail, Van Zandt’s stories flow at a rapid clip. He suffers from anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, he told the Observer, and his time in incarceration heightened those struggles. “If you put on orange, you’re guilty,” he says, referring to the orange jumpsuit he wore behind bars. “They treat you like an animal from day one.”

Van Zandt spent seven months in jail. One of the low points arrived right around the time he was hoping to get out: the three-month mark, when a punishing winter storm hammered Texas.

Like many jails and prisons throughout the state, Harris County's lost access to water during the storm in February 2021. Van Zandt says the toilets filled with feces that festered for four days. At one point during the storm, instead of being served dinner, incarcerated people like Van Zandt were served a slightly larger lunch. It was an apparent attempt at rationing.

“Y’all should be good,” a corrections officer told them, Van Zandt recounts.

Limited water bottles were available, but as Kevin Mack, another incarcerated man in Harris County Jail, told the Texas Tribune last year, those bottles became part of the prison economy. Like marked-up ramen and paper for letters home, bottled water became an elusive commodity some people were hoarding and others were clamoring to get.

Van Zandt and others complained about the conditions behind bars, but the common refrain from guards was, “Everyone is suffering out there, too.”

“Yeah, but we’re incarcerated,” Van Zandt would reply. “We can’t go anywhere. Some of us aren’t getting enough to eat or drink, and we have no idea if our people are OK.”

Or, as Mason McCormick, a man incarcerated at Dallas County Jail, told the Observer: “There was definitely a heightened sense of anxiety during that time. When the lights went out, some people’s imaginations ran wild. They thought the guards would just abandon us here.”

There are many stories like this from across Texas: stories of debilitating anxiety, confusion and neglect. But in interviews with incarcerated people, experts, attorneys and advocates, another story emerges, one of a system averse to the kind of reforms and resources that would improve conditions behind bars. While the winter storm shined a light on the dreadful conditions endured by incarcerated people, little to nothing appears to have been done about it.

“Our needs aren’t met by the city or the county, even though they have the dollars,” says Tiara Cooper. A formerly incarcerated person, Cooper is a staunch advocate for jail reform who works with the coalition In Defense of Black Lives Dallas. “Once again, I feel like the city of Dallas is letting people down, and incarcerated people especially. I don’t see a plan in place for if or when this happens again.”

**

click to enlarge Carswell Federal Medical Center in Fort Worth can hold upwards of 1,300 prisoners. - MIKE BROOKS
Carswell Federal Medical Center in Fort Worth can hold upwards of 1,300 prisoners.
Mike Brooks
June, a woman who was incarcerated at the Federal Medical Center, Carswell, in Fort Worth, calls that particular prison a “mindfuck.”

The federal prison’s population is so varied that, as she explains, “You’ll be standing in line and the person in front of you is there because they bounced a $30,000 check, and the woman behind you killed two of her kids.”

The Fort Worth facility houses many women with special medical needs, and it was those women who June (not her real name) was most worried about during the winter storm.

“Some of the women who were living with us and going through this were in their 70s,” she says. “Other women are anemic, or on oxygen. A couple hours after losing water, pandemonium breaks out because some people are panicking. It’s like a refugee situation in that place.”

The picture she paints of Carswell during the storm is eerily similar to the stories shared by incarcerated people in Houston, Galveston and Dallas: The intermittent power plunged the buildings into freezing temps. The only warmth was found in scarce blankets crusted with dirt. With the water out and nothing available to drink, people scrambled to discreetly steal milk cartons or whatever liquid they could get their hands on. The feces piled up and no one, including corrections officers, knew what to do.

But there is one maddening aspect that makes June’s story stand out from the others: Her unit didn’t have running water, but the building next door did. “Imagine being locked in a building without something you literally need to live, and you know the people next door have it,” June says.

Some people carted water from one building to the next using trash bags, but it was hardly enough to flush a toilet, let alone drink. (The corrections officers on duty didn’t share that there was a boil-water notice in effect.)

Then, as toilets overflowed, people resorted to fishing frozen feces out of the toilet bowls, while others tried to find discreet places to urinate. “You think, ‘If I really need to go, I can find somewhere,’” June says. “But then you multiply that by 250 people.”

A sewage backup created what June describes as “ankle-deep feces and wastewater” throughout her building. According to her, corrections officers let that water sit there for nearly a day. That is perhaps the most frustrating part of all: the lack of action and communication from the people up top. “They made the officers be the face of their inaction,” June says of the prison’s leadership. “There was no communication, no resolution.”

In general, incarcerated people have scant opportunities to speak out. Their phone time is limited, and in-person visitations have been unavailable throughout much of the pandemic. Many incarcerated people (including Mason McCormick in Dallas) are “lost in the system” for months at a time, unaware of what’s happening with their cases or awaiting court dates that are repeatedly rescheduled.

Another option is to write and file a grievance, as many people in lockup did during last year's winter storm.
In Galveston, people incarcerated in the county jail wrote that the lack of water was starting to infringe on their civil rights. A couple bottles of water a day won’t cut it, they said.

“If you can’t provide my basic necessities,” a woman named Allison wrote, “you need to bond me out. I’m starting to feel sick from dehydration. I have a fraud charge. I didn't kill anyone, and I don’t think I should be treated this poorly.”

A man named Keith wrote, “We haven’t had drinking water or showers in two days. This is unconstitutional. There’s hepatitis, HIV, COVID, who knows?”

It may be tempting to view these stories as an anomaly, but many advocates say jails and prisons throughout Texas are home to horrible conditions all year long. “I had a woman call me this summer and say, ‘My brother’s in prison, and they’re not giving him water,’” says Amite Dominick, president of Texas Prisons Community Advocates. “There’s really not much for me to do other than call down there and say, ‘Why aren’t you giving him water?’”

Dominick’s organization advocates for incarcerated people and their families, primarily focusing on the conditions behind bars. That involves a lot of education, particularly on the issue of air conditioning.

The majority of Texas prisons are not fully air-conditioned.

“People have died with internal body temperatures of 106 to 109 degrees,” she says. “Meanwhile, if I were to leave my dog in a car, I’m going to jail. We wouldn’t treat dogs like this; how are we treating human beings like this?”

Dominick has an answer to her own question: It’s all about politics. So many of Texas prisons are in various states of disrepair, she says. These facilities are simply not fit to endure extreme cold or extreme heat, and because of the stigma surrounding incarcerated people, there’s little political will to provide the funding needed for repairs or any changes that would improve living conditions. For instance, multiple legislative attempts to add air conditioning to scorching Texas prisons have failed in recent years.

“The reality is, in Texas, we are cooking people in prisons,” state Rep. Terry Canales, a Democrat from Edinburg, said on the floor of the Legislature in 2021 in an effort to fund air conditioning. “This is the right thing to do, it is the humane thing to do, and it’s something we should have done a long time ago.”

There is also little to no motivation to close or partially close some of Texas’ most decrepit jails and prisons. In Dallas, advocates like Cooper have cited the horror stories of the winter storm as a key reason why parts of the county jail should be closed.

Even some corrections officers agree with her.

“We’re forced to work overtime because we simply don’t have enough people to staff the jail,” one officer told the Observer. “That means we’ve got people in here working multiple 14- or 16-hour days a week. If we closed parts of the jail, we wouldn’t have this problem anymore.”

Several of their coworkers shared similar sentiments, and they all asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation. Sheriff Marian Brown recently told The Dallas Morning News, “[W]e continue to work to get to a point where overtime is not a necessity,” but to Cooper, that misses the point. The way she sees it, closing part of the jail could solve multiple problems at once: The reduced space could encourage a reduction in low-level arrests, and in turn, corrections officers wouldn’t be as overwhelmed. Most importantly, conditions inside the jail could improve.

Yet on the point of population reduction, Cooper continues to face red tape and roadblocks.

“The Commissioners Court passes the buck to the sheriff, who passes the buck to the police, who pass the buck back to the sheriff,” Cooper says. “Some of them will say they want to see reductions, but are there real signs that they want to do something? No. When it comes down to really being the champion and pushing the needle forward, we don’t see anything.”

Meanwhile, Cooper can’t shake the memory of some of the calls she received during last year's winter storm. At the time, she was helping the loved ones of incarcerated people find any shred of information they could about their families. “So many mothers and partners and grandparents had no idea what was going on with their loved ones,” she says. “I could feel the pain in their voices.”

**

click to enlarge Dallas County Jail has not been a comfortable place during winter storms. - MIKE BROOKS
Dallas County Jail has not been a comfortable place during winter storms.
Mike Brooks
Tammy Hinton was experiencing some deja vu this month. Hinton, Mason McCormick’s longtime girlfriend, was preparing for another freezing cold snap, this one called Winter Storm Landon. “It’s hard having him incarcerated, because we have a child together,” Hinton says. “So that means, while he is locked up, I’m having to do everything for our son by myself.”

While Van Zandt is effusive and speaks passionately, McCormick is often stoic. He talks about his incarceration in a matter-of-fact tone, his voice rarely fluctuating. He is, above all else, unfailingly polite. “How’re you feeling?” he asks over the phone from Dallas County Jail. “You ready for the storm?”

In his words, McCormick has been “in and out of jail quite a bit,” and as a result, he has a unique perspective on the inner workings of the system. Apart from a six-month stint in Johnson County Jail south of Fort Worth, he has spent the last two-and-a-half years incarcerated on drug charges in Dallas. During that time, he has befriended plenty of guys who, despite being charged with a misdemeanor, have sat in jail for three or four months without knowing the status of their cases.

Winter Storm Uri in 2021 was a new low point.

When the lights went out, McCormick says officers made him and the others in his “pod” stay in their pitch-black quarters for roughly four hours. The lack of water and knowledge led to some wild theorizing among the men, including the idea that they had been abandoned. “The officers weren’t very forthcoming with a contingency plan, but you kind of got the sense that they didn’t know, either,” McCormick says. “I don’t think there was a plan.”

He also hasn’t noticed any policy changes since those days in darkness. There is one difference, though. “I have noticed they’ve been doing more fire drills lately,” he says. “I don’t know if that’s related or not, though.”

When reached for comment, the sheriff’s office said there have been “no changes” to jail policy concerning weather preparedness. “The Dallas County Emergency Management Teams are equipped with plans regarding severe weather,” a spokeswoman said.

The Bureau of Prisons shared a similar, albeit murkier, response. “Every Bureau of Prisons facility has contingency plans in place to address a large range of concerns or incidents, to include natural disasters, and is fully equipped and prepared to implement these plans as necessary,” spokesman Emery Nelson wrote in an email. “For safety and security reasons, the Bureau of Prison’s contingency plans are sensitive in nature and are not available to the public.”

Beyond the stories of February 2021, there are common sense steps experts insist jails can take to remedy confusion and reduce chaos. Jessica Pishko, an attorney and writer currently working on a book about sheriffs, says communication should be one focus. “Most people in jail are getting information from watching TV, not the sheriffs themselves,” she says. “That can create a lot of panic during a time like the winter storm, because people aren’t really sure what’s happening and if their families are OK.”

Another option, she explains, is to simply release people who pose no threat to the community. At the time of publication, Dallas County Jail is housing nearly 6,000 people, roughly 80% of its capacity. Police have stopped arresting people for some minor offenses, including small amounts of marijuana, but arrests for other misdemeanors continue unabated. Additionally, data show that Dallas police arrest Black people for misdemeanors far more often than their white counterparts. From 2013 to 2020, 77% of all arrests were made for low-level, nonviolent offenses.

As Cooper has witnessed, attempts to reduce those numbers are often met with endless finger-pointing and the kind of hardline law-and-order rhetoric that is baked into Dallas’ DNA. "Criminal justice reform is just not a topic that anyone in Dallas County leadership wants to deal with,” Pishko says. “The right is not willing to do any criminal justice reform at all."

Of course, Dallas County Jail is not the only facility plagued by crowded populations and dangerous conditions. In early January this year, Harris County Jail was so overcrowded that hundreds of its occupants were recently moved to a jail in Louisiana.

“It does not appear that the Harris County Jail is safe,” Pishko adds. “A few months ago, a 19-year-old was booked into the jail and killed by another inmate, and I was like, 'Why was he there? He was a skinny, intellectually disabled kid, and they let someone kill him. That’s like Sheriff 101.'"

The sheriffs in both Harris County and Dallas County have seen their budgets increase by millions in recent years. The Observer asked the local sheriff’s department if any of those new millions would be used to improve jail conditions, but the questions were directed to the Office of Budget and Evaluation. That office has yet to respond. Likewise, the Harris County sheriff’s department didn't respond to questions. Meanwhile, the sheriffs in both counties continue to exceed their budgets.

In 2020, Sheriff Brown’s department spent $14.4 million in overtime. It was originally provided for $2.5 million. As Cooper argues, that’s money that could go to programs and initiatives focused on housing, education, homelessness and jobs.

Then again, as Dominick points out, money isn’t really the issue, or at least not in the way people think it is. Taxpayers may not realize how much of their money goes to prisons.

According to The Marshall Project, American taxpayers pay roughly $80 billion toward annual prison costs every year. In Texas, spending on prisons and jails has far outpaced spending on education.

“I like to quote Representative Canales, who said, ‘I don’t think we have a money problem; I think we have a give-a-damn problem,” Dominick says. “I don’t think people truly understand how much money they spend on incarceration, and I don’t think they understand how bad it is in there.”

That’s why Jerome Van Zandt, a Republican, thinks criminal justice reform should be bipartisan. By phone in late January, Van Zandt offered a seemingly endless flow of anecdotes about his seven months behind bars. He touched on the commissary, the cramped quarters and the endless fighting. “There was always something going on,” he says.

But there was one story he seemed eager to share more than the others, a story to which he kept returning: his own. He doesn’t have anything against the police, he says. He was just scared, so he ran.

Yes, he knows he screwed up, and no, he doesn’t want a free pass. But he doesn’t think he deserves the treatment he received in jail. And on that day in fall 2020, before the cuffs, before he ran, he wants you to know that he wasn’t trying to hurt anyone. “I don’t know what you’d call it,” he says. “I guess maybe you’d call it a cry for help.”
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Tyler Hicks was born in Austin, but he grew up in Dallas. He typically claims one or the other, depending on which is most convenient. His work has appeared in Texas Monthly, Truthout, The Texas Observer and many other publications.
Contact: Tyler Hicks