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Filed 5:00 a.m.
01.09.2023
News

After Deadly Prison Fires, Will the Texas Legislature Fund Safety Fixes?

Our investigations spotlighted rampant violations, like thousands of broken fire alarms and smoke detectors.

An illustration shows a man shouting behind the window of a prison cell, while smoke and fire billows out of it.  The window forms the eyepiece of a set of blinders being worn by a prison guard.  Static is shown coming out of a walkie talkie worn by the prison guard.

After four deaths, thousands of safety violations and more than a decade of damning state reports, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice is finally asking lawmakers to double the agency’s fire-safety spending starting in September.

This article was published in partnership with The Houston Chronicle.

The requested $30 million could help rectify more than 8,000 safety violations that fire marshals identified in their latest inspection report, which came out earlier this month. Inspectors called out the agency for missing fire extinguishers, broken smoke detectors, and nonfunctioning alarm systems in most of the facilities they inspected.

The budgetary plea comes after the Houston Chronicle and The Marshall Project published an investigation last May into the death of Jacinto De La Garza, who burned alive in an East Texas lockup without working fire alarms. Since then, at least three men at other prisons have died following fires in or directly outside their cells.

De La Garza’s family sued the prison agency for violating his civil rights; the case is pending in federal district court in Lufkin. The agency has asked a judge to dismiss the legal complaint.

A spokeswoman for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, Amanda Hernandez, declined to comment on pending litigation, but said prison officials are working to correct the longstanding problems.

Besides the department’s $30 million ask of lawmakers, other fixes are already underway. The agency began alarm-system repairs at one-third of its 98 lockups during the fiscal year that ended in September, she said. An additional 16 units are scheduled for repairs this fiscal year, including the prison where De La Garza died.

“This is a positive step, but unfortunately most of these maintenance issues are beyond overdue,” said Democratic Rep. Gene Wu of Houston. “Eventually we're going to need to either fix these problems, or shut these units down because they're no longer safe.”

The modest fixes now underway have been a long time coming. Since at least 2012, the Texas prison system has regularly flouted state fire-safety standards. Back then, inspectors with the State Fire Marshal’s Office found that 237 prison facilities that should have had working alarm systems did not. At some units, staff had put in work orders requesting repairs — but inspectors noted that those repairs weren’t made.

The lack of working alarms would be concerning in many congregate living environments, but it’s particularly dangerous in the state’s high-security lockups, where starting fires has been one way people in solitary confinement air their grievances, our investigation found.

If staff refused to give them medical care, forgot to feed them or failed to let them out for showers or recreation, prisoners would sometimes stick razors and graphite pencils into outlets and start fires. Then, they’d hold pieces of paper close enough to catch the blaze before tossing the flaming balls of paper out into the hallways to burn in common areas.

The point was to attract attention from high-ranking prison staff, who might address whatever problems line officers had ignored, prisoners said. Sometimes that worked — but not always. And if officers ignored blazes in units without working sprinklers or smoke detectors, fires could sometimes burn unchecked for hours.

By the end of 2019, the State Fire Marshal’s Office found nearly 3,000 fire safety violations, including nonfunctional alarm systems, missing safety testing records and electrical violations in every unit it inspected.

But the uncorrected safety issues received scant attention until COVID-19 hit. Guards began falling ill and quitting. Fewer of them showed up to work. Conditions grew worse. And reports of prison fires began to grow.

Eventually, incarcerated men began using contraband phones to send out images of the conflagrations. The Marshall Project first reported on the fires — and the fire safety violations — in late 2020. At the time, a prison spokesman said the agency was aware of the state inspection reports and had “processes in place to mitigate issues identified” in them.

Afterward, the agency bumped up fire safety spending from $2.9 million in the budget year beginning in September 2020 to $8.6 million in the budget year starting in September 2021.

De La Garza died Nov. 11, 2021.

Initially, prison investigators described the 26-year-old’s death as a heart attack. Later, they said he died of smoke inhalation, trapped in a burning cell at the Gib Lewis Unit in East Texas.

According to others in his unit, De La Garza had been behaving oddly for weeks before his death. Eventually, he threatened to set a fire if the officer on duty didn’t get someone higher up to come talk to him. A few minutes later, other prisoners said, De La Garza sparked a blaze.

“The flames reached half the door and I couldn’t see my friend anymore,” wrote David Pedraza, who could see De La Garza’s cell from his own across the unit.

The other prisoners banged on their doors, trying to get help. The guard on duty called for backup — but by the time other officers arrived, De La Garza had been trapped in the cell so long that one of his thick rubber shower shoes melted onto his foot.

The agency denied that the fire safety lapses played any role in De La Garza’s death, instead blaming prison staff who “failed to follow policy or training.”

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Four months after De La Garza’s death, Damien Bryant, 31, died in a cell fire at Beto Unit, a prison 120 miles away.

Then in July, 42-year-old James Salazar died following a fire in his cell at the Clements Unit in Amarillo.

Less than a week after that, prison officials said, 37-year-old Andre Ortiz died after a fire just outside his cell at the Coffield Unit in East Texas.

Despite the string of fatalities, the most recent state inspection report turned up even more problems than in years past. In 2022, the Fire Marshal’s Office identified more than 8,200 violations in Texas prison buildings. That figure accounted for more than 42% of the total violations inspectors found in all agencies statewide — even though Texas prisons only made up a fifth of the total buildings inspected.

By the end of the current two-year budget period — which includes fiscal years 2022 and 2023 — the agency expects to spend $14.3 million on fire safety. If lawmakers approve the budget request in the upcoming legislative session, that figure could increase to $30 million for 2024 and 2025.

To some experts, those figures underscore the need to spend more on basic fire safety fixes.“This funding is so desperately overdue,” said Carlee Purdum, a Texas A&M University professor who studies mass incarceration. “The state of safety in our prison system is just abysmal.”

Keri Blakinger Twitter Email is a staff writer whose work focuses on prisons and jails. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post Magazine, the Houston Chronicle and The New York Times. She is the organization's first formerly incarcerated reporter. Her memoir, "Corrections in Ink", came out in June 2022.