Sheriffs faced difficult choice with jail evacuations
Sept. 11, 2017 at 9:21 p.m.
Updated Sept. 12, 2017 at 8:51 a.m.
Despite architects' assurances the Calhoun County Jail could withstand a Category 5 hurricane, Sheriff Bobbie Vickery made the decision to evacuate inmates.
"We were expecting 9- to 15-foot storm tides, 20-plus inches of rain ... and high winds," Vickery said. "When you put all that together, you don't take a chance."
In the several days before Hurricane Harvey's landfall, sheriffs of the Crossroads found themselves with a difficult decision. They could leave inmates to shelter in place despite the possibility of losing power, water and other utilities, or pay for them to stay at jails elsewhere in Texas.
Authorities evacuated about 85 inmates from the Calhoun County Jail to jails in Bastrop and Travis counties about the time officials ordered a mandatory evacuation Aug. 24. Inmates returned Sept. 2, he said.
That decision proved to be a a wise one, Vickery said.
The jail's generator failed just after the storm passed, leaving the jail not only without water but without power for a few hours until a replacement could arrive. The generator's failure - a short circuit - occurred despite weekly tests, a failure he attributed to Murphy's Law, Vickery said.
"Sometimes you can run a brand-new car off the lot, and in 10 days you will need to have it fixed," he said.
If power had failed while inmates remained inside, jail staff would have initiated a lockdown procedure and relied on non-electronic locks and security measures until evacuation could occur, Vickery said.
The power and water disruptions also resulted in the loss of air conditioning, potable water and sewage capabilities.
At the Victoria County Jail, electricity remained uninterrupted through the storm as a 600,000-watt generator in the parking lot kept lights, air conditioning and security measures humming along as if nothing had happened, said Chief Deputy Roy Boyd. That generator, which is normally tested about once each week, was checked daily as Harvey approached.
"That building never lost capability as a functioning place," Boyd said.
After the hurricane disrupted sewage capabilities, inmates were forced to use about 20 chemical toilets inside the jail, Boyd said.
Although at least one inmate alleged in a letter to the Advocate that jail staff told inmates to remove feces from their own cells' toilets with rubber gloves and throw the waste away in a trash can, Boyd said no such event occurred.
"They are lying," he said. "It's that simple."
Such an occurrence, if it did occur, said Brandon Wood, executive director of the Texas Commission on Jail Standards, probably would constitute a violation of jail standards.
While a temporary suspension of standards is not possible unless a proclamation by the governor is issued, Wood said, his commission would assess hurricane-related violations with a common-sense approach.
"If you develop a roof leak in the middle of a hurricane, we are not going to rush out and issue a citation," he said.
Commission inspectors instead ensured county jails would fare well during the storm by reviewing evacuation and other plans in the days leading to Harvey's arrival.
But ultimately, sheriffs and county judges have the final say about whether to order evacuation or sheltering in place, he said.
In the end, Victoria County Sheriff's Office officials decided to keep inmates in their own jail, which Boyd described as a "very stout building."
Apart from water damage to some interior walls, the building remained intact and safe, Boyd said.
But the chief deputy said his office was prepared to relocate the estimated 280 inmates on the eve of Harvey, although he declined to go into detail about that plan, citing security reasons.
In the face of similar circumstances, Jackson County Sheriff Andy Louderback also made the decision to keep about 50 inmates in his jail during Harvey.
Housing those inmates at other counties' jails would likely cost about $50 to $60 each day per inmate, he said. Additionally, the sheriff's office would have to pay for considerable transportation costs, he said.
Refugio County Sheriff Raul Gonzales said he was unsure how his office will pay those housing fees for about 30 inmates who remain at jails in Wilson and San Patricio counties. He said he hopes to know within a week when inmates may be able to return.
With considerable damage to his jail, Gonzales said, his inmates have nowhere else to go.
"We don't have much of a choice," he said.