‘Cruel and Unusual’: Texas Prisoners Face Deadly Heat and Contaminated Water

Lawsuit alleges that prisoners must drink comious amounts of lead- and copper-tained water to cope with high temperatures

graphic depicting a prison

As a federal judge ordered the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) to cool down one of its prison units for the sake of its elderly and sick residents’ health, plaintiffs at another Texas prison are hoping to see a similar victory in their own challenges to deadly heat and toxic water at their unit.

Judge Keith Ellison ordered TDCJ to come up with a plan to keep heat-sensitive prisoners at the Wallace Pack Unit near Navasota, Texas, at a maximum temperature of 88 degrees, and provide ready access to respite areas for the unit’s other prisoners. It’s a landmark case that could have implications for other Texas prisons — and prisons around the country — without air-conditioning in cellblocks.

According to TDCJ Director of Public Information Jason Clark, only 29 of 108 TDCJ units have air-conditioning in their cellblocks, with all units having at least some areas that are air-conditioned. The Eastham Unit in Lovelady, Texas, is among the state’s many prisons lacking air-conditioning in the areas where prisoners spend most of their time.

People incarcerated in the Eastham Unit have filed a federal complaint in the Eastern District of Texas arguing that they must drink copious amounts of water tainted with lead and copper to cope with the deadly summer heat. The water, they say, has caused a chronic, untreatable stomach disease among some of them. Their complaints are closely modeled after the Wallace Pack Unit case, and could become some of the first tests of the new precedent set by Judge Ellison’s July ruling.

image of prisonimage by Jared Rodriguez / Truthout Deadly heat, unsafe water, black mold, and cockroaches plague prisoners at many Texas prisons. Keith Washington, a prisoner Eastam unit, has described the conditions “cruel and unusual.”

But even with the recent victory in the Wallace Pack case, the Eastham lawsuits face significant challenges. A federal judge ordered the original 10 plaintiffs to proceed as individuals and declined the main plaintiff a lawyer to represent the case, calling their claims “rather routine.”

The prisoners allege that the prison’s aging service lines have become so corroded that significant levels of lead and copper have leeched into the water supply. Eastham, which opened in 1917, is the oldest prison in the state — and looks like it. As I drove up to the 100-year-old unit, I noticed the chipping paint and other signs of weathering that reveal decades of erosion to the prison’s basic infrastructure.

Outside the unit, Black prisoners in white jumpsuits worked without pay on the same land originally cleared by slaves before the Civil War. According to the book Texas Tough by historian Robert Perkinson, during the Jim Crow era, the land was maintained by freedmen who had been leased back to landowners after they were convicted of crimes. Eastham is a chilling display of the evolution of the twenty-first century prison plantation that Keith “Malik” Washington has experienced firsthand, and has organized against from behind bars.

Some prison-reform activists know Washington for his role as a Texas-based spokesperson for the movement to abolish this form of prison slavery. He spoke on behalf of Texas prisoners in the run-up to the nation’s largest prison strike last year on September 9, but was prevented from participating. Only a day before the strike, he says, guards handcuffed and placed him in solitary confinement.

Washington says this punishment was part of a larger pattern of retaliation against him for efforts as a member of the New Afrikan Black Panther Party and in conjunction with the Industrial Workers of the World’s Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee on a national campaign to end prison slavery. This retaliation, he says, includes a fabricated “inciting to riot” charge, a “Security Threat Group” label, transfers to prison units with worse living conditions and being assigned a cellmate who was a member of a white supremacist gang.

Now, in addition to his work to expose prison slavery, he is highlighting the environmental injustices of mass incarceration from behind prison walls. When we met during a visit in July, Washington was relieved to have a brief reprieve from his stifling cell in administrative segregation — and simply to have some human contact.

“Ooooh, it is so nice to be out. It is just insufferable in there, Candice,” he said as he took a seat behind the black metal grate dividing us.

“Oh, I know,” I responded, foolishly, thinking of the reporting I have done on heat in Texas prisons.

“No, you don’t,” he said.

I quickly concurred. “You’re right. I shouldn’t say that.”

It was my first visit to a prison after TDCJ previously denied me access to the Wallace Pack Unit for earlier reporting in this series. Washington had put me on his personal visitor’s list. I wasn’t allowed to bring in a pen or paper.

Washington told me TDCJ officials have not been following their own policies to mitigate heat-related illness and heat stroke among prisoners. He said he and other Eastham prisoners have been receiving lukewarm water regularly without ice, and have been denied access to regular cool-down showers and respite areas. Moreover, he says, not every prisoner at Eastham is equipped with a fan in his cell, mentioning a prisoner two cells down from him who does not have one.

“[Eastham is] one of those old ‘red brick’ units, and this unit becomes a death trap in the summer months, especially for prisoners like me who are trapped in Ad-Seg [Administrative Segregation]!” Washington wrote in a letter preceding our visit. During the visit, he described how the brick cell walls retain heat during the day only to release it again during the evening hours, making for miserable, sleepless nights.

TDCJ Public Information Director Clark declined to comment on conditions at Eastham due to the ongoing lawsuit.

As Truthout and Earth Island Journal have previously reported, litigation has forced TDCJ to acknowledge at least 23 heat-stroke deaths in its prison units since 1998. But the deaths are only the first indications of a much larger heat problem. Internal TDCJ emails obtained by Truthout and Earth Island Journal from 2010 and 2011 reveal a pervasive heat-related illness within TDCJ cellblock areas. Despite the TDCJ’s Health Services Division tracking more than 100 instances of heat-related illness during those years, they have neglected to voluntarily introduce climate controls.

Washington told me he takes medication for chronic seizures, and says the extreme heat in his cell has brought on seizures in the past. He was previously incarcerated at the Wallace Pack unit, where he says he helped expose the arsenic-tainted water there, and was subsequently transferred to another prison unit for his efforts. As Truthout and Earth Island Journal have previously reported, Judge Ellison ordered TDCJ to truck in safe drinking water for prisoners at the Wallace Pack unit after tests showed the water contained between 2.5 to 4.5 times the level of arsenic, a carcinogen, permitted by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). TDCJ installed a modern filtration system in January.

Washington, who has filed his own lawsuit, said contaminated water is a pervasive problem across TDCJ prisons. He described the water at his previous unit, Coffield, as containing high levels of Coliform bacteria from fecal matter. Likewise, he says the water at Eastham tastes “nasty.”

“Personally, I try not to drink the water out of the TAP in my cell! The smell varies from a strong, sulfuric smell to a strong chlorine smell — and the taste is horrible, sometimes leaving a gritty residue in your mouth,” he wrote in a letter preceding our visit. He said that supporters sometimes send him small donations to purchase bottled water from the prison commissary.

The Eastham lawsuit’s plaintiff is a jailhouse lawyer named William Wells. Wells contracted helicobacter pylori, a chronic, untreatable disease that eats away at the stomach lining. Wells submitted his medical records as evidence in his complaint, and told Truthout and Earth Island Journal during a phone interview from Eastham that more than a dozen other prisoners there have contracted the disease.

Wells says that while he was once given “pink Pepto-Bismol pills” and antibiotics for the condition, he hasn’t received any follow-up treatment. “I told them, my stomach still feels bloated, and all this stuff,” he said.

According to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), the unit utilizes groundwater from two wells as its source of drinking water, and is currently in compliance with the federal Lead and Copper Rule.

The unit, however, has incurred previous violations for not collecting lead and copper tap samples to send out for testing under the rule during the 2013 and 2014 monitoring periods. Additionally, TCEQ has posted at least six public “boil water” notices at the unit in the last five years due to valve replacements, repair and line leaks. Wells’ complaint, however, notes that the prisoners are not permitted to boil the water.

“The commissary sells us ‘hot pots’ which heat water but [doesn’t] boil it. If we alter our hot pots in order to make them boil, they get confiscated and we are given a disciplinary case for contraband,” Washington wrote in an essay about the matter on his blog.

In a response to a complaint to TDCJ’s Ombudsman Office, an official claimed the agency trucked in clean water to provide to the unit’s staff and prisoners during at least one “boil water” notice period in December of last year. However, a supporter wrote a rebuttal to a separate Ombudsman Office response to a complaint about the water and conditions at Eastham, challenging the office’s independence in investigatory matters.

The rebuttal also noted that key information about TCEQ’s December “boil water” notice had been withheld. Moreover, when Washington and others first exposed Wallace Pack’s now well-established arsenic contamination, they were similarly told there was no such contamination. Washington was subsequently moved off the unit.

“To fix the problem is a multimillion-dollar project and, as we saw at the Wallace Pack unit in Navasota, Texas, the state will tell a bold-face[d] lie in order to keep from spending money,” Washington wrote in a letter. “The [TCEQ] is a state agency and it is not in their interest to expose toxic water in Texas prisons! And now that the EPA has been defunded, there is absolutely no oversight or protection for anyone, including prisoners. Even when the EPA was fully funded the agency still ignored contaminated water and poisoned soil especially when the victims were poor people. Environmental racism is rampant throughout the United States.”

An analysis of two TCEQ datasets of violations of the agency’s environmental regulations at TDCJ prison units from January 2003 to March 2017 — conducted by the National Institute for Computer Assisted Reporting — shows that the Eastham Unit incurred more notices of violation than any other state prison. According to the dataset, Eastham has incurred 235 notices of violation within that timeframe. The violations ranged from several counts of “failure to prevent unauthorized discharge of wastewater”; “failure to ensure systems of collection, treatment and disposal are properly operated and maintained”; “failure to initiate planning for upgrading to the wastewater treatment plant”; and scores and scores of record-keeping, monitoring and reporting violations, including violations recorded in TCEQ’s Safe Drinking Water Information System related to the EPA’s Lead and Copper Rule.

Contaminated water and deadly heat are not the only environmental issues affecting the living conditions of Eastham prisoners. They also say their cellblocks are plagued with black mold and a roach infestation.

Washington says the problem is so bad that roaches crawl across the prisoners’ bodies at night. In one anecdote, he described guards placing a Ramadan tray on the bed of a fellow Muslim cellmate who was not in the cell at the time. By the time the cellmate returned, roaches had already gotten to his tray, and he went without food that evening after having fasted throughout the day.

As Washington described the infestation problem at Eastham, I noticed a trail of black ants crawling across my side of the metal grate dividing us.

In a letter to me, Eastham prisoner William David Norris wrote that the roach problem compounds the already near-unbearable conditions.

“Can you imagine what it’s like for us, with a heat index of well over 100 degrees, no cold water, no way to get a cool down shower and absolutely no way to visit the respite areas to help combat the extreme heat? And at the same time, trying to avoid the roaches that are everywhere. In my 19-and-a-half years in TDCJ, I’ve never seen anything like this,” Norris wrote. “As of [July], I’ve now been on this unit one year and the pest control has still not sprayed for the roaches.”

Washington told me that TDCJ did do a “power wash” in cells and other areas that had black mold growth in Eastham, but he said the problem was still occurring in the unit’s pipe chase area, and was affecting the prison’s overall ventilation.

“There is a ... black mold problem to go along with the roaches, toxic water and deadly extreme heat in the summer,” he wrote. Meanwhile, “the people who actually run these prisons sit in air-conditioned offices and sip bottled water!! They don’t give a damn about the prisoners who languish in these brick ovens!”

This report is part of a collaborative series on the environment and mass incarceration by Earth Island Journal and Truthout. It was supported by a grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism.

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