One year ago as Hurricane Ike approached Galveston, city and county authorities ordered mandatory evacuations, and warned that anyone remaining on the island faced "certain death." 



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


As we reported, the Galveston County Jail is a one-story structure, and at the time of the storm's approach the National Weather Service was warning that buildings were at 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 Rights Project, the decisions by Galveston officials caused immense human suffering in the jail, and as Facing South covered, the decision was also a direct violation of the United Nations human rights standards regarding those affected by natural disasters [pdf], which has strong language about protecting the rights of those who are incarcerated. The inhumane treatment of inmates in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina brought national attention to the human rights abuses of prisoners during a national emergency.


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

Despite a mandatory evacuation order for Galveston County, and despite the evacuation of all state prison facilities in the path of Ike, now-former Sheriff Gean Leonard failed to evacuate over one thousand men and women in custody at the jail. "The animal shelter down the street was evacuated, but they didn't evacuate people at the jail," said Leonard Rodriguez, who was incarcerated at the jail during the hurricane. "They knew it was going to be bad. The guards told us they were talking about writing our social security numbers and birth dates on our arms in permanent marker so that our bodies could be identified if the jail flooded and we drowned," Rodriguez said.


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


The stories told by the men and women who were at the jail reveal a shocking disregard for their basic human rights. "There was no water, and the toilets were overflowing onto the floors. We were given buckets to use as toilets and we only had one five gallon container of drinking water to share between 48 people," 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. He hit his head hard on a bed frame and lost consciousness. It took a long time for the guards to revive him, and all they did was give him a 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 half months pregnant when she was at the jail during the storm. Due to the lack of water, Forteson became severely dehydrated and when she developed a urinary tract infection, she couldn't take antibiotics because they dehydrated her further. "I really thought that I was going to die," said Forteson. "We all kept thinking about what happened to the prisoners in Orleans Parish Prison during Hurricane Katrina."


"The county declared a mandatory evacuation, but didn't even evacuate the one group of people actually in county custody," said Izzo. "Now that hurricane season is once again upon us, it is imperative to ensure that this sort of human rights violation does not happen again."