Report criticizes Galveston Sheriff's decision not to evacuate county jail during Ike

One year ago as HurricaneIke approached Galveston, city and county authorities orderedmandatory evacuations, and warned that anyone remaining on the islandfaced "certain death." 

Facing South reported in September 2008 onthe decision by the Galveston sheriff not to evacuateover 1,000 inmates and staff of the Galveston County jail beforeHurricane Ike. On the anniversary of Ike, the Texas Civil Rights Project released a report containing stories and first-hand accounts from the people wholived through Ike and its aftermath at the jail.

As we reported, the Galveston CountyJail is a one-story structure, and at the time of the storm'sapproach the National Weather Service was warning that buildings wereat risk of storm surges and that those in one-story buildings faced"certain death" if they did not evacuate.By sheer luck, the storm surge turned out to be less than expected --about 15 feet.

According to the Texas Civil RightsProject, the decisions by Galveston officials caused immense humansuffering in the jail, and as Facing South covered, the decision was also a direct violation of the United Nations human rights standardsregarding those affected by natural disasters [pdf], which has stronglanguage about protecting the rights of those who are incarcerated.The inhumane treatment of inmates in New Orleans following HurricaneKatrina brought national attention to the human rights abuses ofprisoners during a national emergency.

The Texas Civil Rights Projectelaborates on the conditions faced by those remaining in the jail:

Despite a mandatory evacuation orderfor Galveston County, and despite the evacuation of all state prisonfacilities in the path of Ike, now-former Sheriff Gean Leonard failedto evacuate over one thousand men and women in custody at the jail."The animal shelter down the street was evacuated, but they didn'tevacuate people at the jail," said Leonard Rodriguez, who wasincarcerated at the jail during the hurricane. "They knew it wasgoing to be bad. The guards told us they were talking about writingour social security numbers and birth dates on our arms in permanentmarker so that our bodies could be identified if the jail flooded andwe drowned," Rodriguez said.

"The Sheriff's decision not toevacuate the jail was made without any regard for the conditions thatthe inmates would be forced to endure after the storm hit," LaurenIzzo, TCRP prisoner's rights attorney said. These people for weeksfaced filthy, flooded, unsanitary conditions, lack of water,inadequate food, an inability to communicate with loved ones, and alack of adequate medical treatment.

The stories told by the men and womenwho were at the jail reveal a shocking disregard for their basichuman rights. "There was no water, and the toilets were overflowingonto the floors. We were given buckets to use as toilets and we onlyhad one five gallon container of drinking water to share between 48people," said Ray Lazare, who was at the jail during the hurricane."I saw one guy in my unit get dizzy and slip on the wet floor. Hehit his head hard on a bed frame and lost consciousness. It took along time for the guards to revive him, and all they did was give hima Band-Aid for the gash on his head and a peanut butter sandwich,"said Michael Shane Smith, also at the jail during the storm.

Denise Forteson was three and a halfmonths pregnant when she was at the jail during the storm. Due to thelack of water, Forteson became severely dehydrated and when shedeveloped a urinary tract infection, she couldn't take antibioticsbecause they dehydrated her further. "I really thought that I wasgoing to die," said Forteson. "We all kept thinking about whathappened to the prisoners in Orleans Parish Prison during HurricaneKatrina."

"The county declared a mandatoryevacuation, but didn't even evacuate the one group of peopleactually in county custody," said Izzo. "Now that hurricaneseason is once again upon us, it is imperative to ensure that thissort of human rights violation does not happen again."