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Texas Jails Were Freezing and Smelled Like Urine

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By Wednesday afternoon, one jail unit in Harris County, Texas, smelled so strongly of urine that the air almost tasted like it, said Finis Prendergast, a 42-year-old who’s incarcerated there.

At that point, all three Harris County Jail facilities hadn’t had running water or a way for people to flush the toilets—which are placed out in the open, without any privacy—since at least that morning, according to Krishnaveni Gundu, the co-founder and executive director of the Texas Jail Project. The jail, like many others across the state, was impacted by the severe winter weather that left hundreds of thousands of Texans suffering without power this week.

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“I think they counted about 68 people right now in here, using the restroom, you know, 6 to 8 times a day each, and we can’t flush the toilets,” said Prendergast, a National Guard veteran who has been incarcerated in a Harris County Jail facility for more than two years. “The air smells like urine. I hate saying this—but it’s like congealed piss in the toilets. It’s gross.”

A historic cold snap has doused Texas with snow and freezing temperatures, triggering an energy crisis and a disaster that’s been linked to at least 10 deaths. People are running out of food, and some hospitals in the state’s capital city of Austin are facing water issues. The situation is just as bad—if not worse—in detention facilities, according to incarcerated people or their family members who spoke to VICE News. People behind bars have grappled this week with a lack of running water, less food, clogged toilets, and in some cases, freezing temperatures.

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“It’s the worst time in this jail that I’ve ever seen. And I’ve seen a lot in 30 months.”

“It’s pretty much the same thing everywhere,” Gundu said. “Things were already pretty bad due to COVID, and overcrowding, and the courts being backed up. But now, everything is sort of exacerbated to the next level because no one was prepared for this storm.”

Water pressure at the Harris County Jail complex, which has a population of more than 9,000 people, was restored by Wednesday night, the Harris County Sheriff’s Office wrote on Twitter. The buildings also have electricity, and the sheriff’s office has insisted on Twitter that “the heat is working fine,” and that people are receiving scheduled meals and extra blankets.

But some inmates said the jail is cold and that there’s been limited food this week. And at least one of the jail’s buildings, located at 701 North Jacinto Street, still had low water pressure Thursday morning, leaving people without a way to bathe or flush the toilets, according to Gundu.

When asked for additional comment, a sheriff’s office spokesperson said: “We’ve addressed conditions inside the jail on our Twitter account.”

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In one Harris County Jail facility, prisoners had only been given one 16.9-ounce water bottle to drink with each meal, one of which they had to conserve so they could brush their teeth, according to Prendergast. Their food portions were also “cut in half,” and some people weren’t given dinner on Monday, he said.

The jail was also freezing when Prendergast spoke to VICE News on Wednesday, and he said prisoners hadn’t been given any extra blankets. He wore his shoes to bed one night because he was so cold.

“It’s the worst time in this jail that I’ve ever seen,” Prendergast said. “And I’ve seen a lot in 30 months.”

Kevin Mack, who is incarcerated in a different Harris County Jail building, said the temperature in his facility was fine, but that he also hadn’t been given enough food, and that the toilets weren’t flushing. As of Wednesday, incarcerated people hadn’t been given any clean clothes for eight days. His housing unit was also overcrowded, he said, with eight people sleeping on the floor.

“There’s a lot of people here that are highly agitated, and I understand why,” Mack said. “It’s an uncomfortable place to be when things are running normally.”

There was also a lack of water at the Bexar County Adult Detention when Victor Espinar spoke to his 21-year-old son, Sebastian, on Wednesday. Sebastian has been incarcerated at the jail for a year and a half on capital murder charges and can’t afford his $250,000 bail.

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“They give them one bottle of water per day, so they have to kind of make it last the whole day, and then sometimes it goes a little longer,” Espinar said. “Same with food, since the kitchen is not being run by the country right now. They’re outsourcing it.”

Espinar added, “If you’re lucky, you get something. If you’re not, you don’t get anything.”

The Bexar County Sheriff’s Office did not immediately respond to VICE News’ request for comment.

The majority of people in the Harris County Jail are being detained pretrial and have not yet been convicted of a crime, according to Elizabeth Rossi, a senior attorney at the Civil Rights Corps. Oftentimes, people are stuck behind bars simply because they can’t afford their bail. Hundreds of people incarcerated in the jail are teenagers, she added. And now, they’re forced to cope not just with the pandemic, but the state’s drastic weather conditions.

“One of the most devastating realizations I’ve had during the pandemic, and now during the climate crisis, is I had thought naively at the beginning of the pandemic that the fact that a deadly virus circulating in the jail would really motivate local officials to take meaningful action, swiftly, to release as many people as possible,” Rossi said. “But they didn’t.”

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