Inmates allege unfit conditions, retaliation after hurricane

Marilyn Tennissen Jul. 18, 2007, 10:57am

Beaumont Federal Correctional Complex

When Hurricane Rita ripped through Southeast Texas and Southwest Louisiana in September 2005, it tore up thousands of utility poles and caused the largest power grid outage in Entergy's history. Hunddreds of thousands of residents were left sweltering in the stifling, late summer heat for almost two weeks.

Inmates at the federal penitentiary in Beaumont claim conditions were even worse for them.

In March of this year, Kelvin Spotts and a handful of inmates at the Beaumont Federal Correctional Complex filed a suit against the U.S. Bureau of Prisons, claiming they were left in their cells without power or running water for weeks. Eventually dozens of other inmates joined the suit, filed March 21 in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Texas.

U.S. Magistrate Earl Hines ordered that the plaintiffs' complaints be severed into individual suits on June 15. The judge felt that so many inmates gathered in one court room for proceedings would pose a security risk.

In their complaint, the inmates claim they are being treated unconstitutionally, saying that they were "forced to live in a cell that was unfit for human habitation" following Rita. They fault the warden for not having a "proper" emergency evacuation plan and for failing to maintain the prison's generators.

The inmates, filing the complaint on their own behalf without legal representation, claim that the facility's generator did not operate and that they had no water for drinking, bathing or flushing the toilets.

"From Sept. 23 until on or about Oct. 4 of 2005, the plaintiffs were left in these type of conditions to suffer in which this could have been prevented," the original petition states.

The inmates say the warden and staff were also living at the institution and refused to let the prisoners out of their cells and some officers "refused to leave the chow slot open so that some type of breaze [sic] could enter the rooms to remove the stench."

They also claim that from Sept. 23 until around Oct. 10, friends and family members were being told that the inmates had been evacuated from the facility prior to the hurricane.

According to the suit, when the inmates complained to the Bureau of Prisons for the warden's failure to evacuate the penitentiary and its condition, they then faced retaliation from the prison staff.

From March through June 2006, the complaint states that inmates were placed on a series of emergency lockdowns, were denied access to the prison law library and copy machine and had legal documents confiscated or destroyed. The staff allegedly also removed microwaves from the units that had been purchased with inmate funds and items like sugar, honey and hard candy were removed from the commissary.

The actions were "part of the retaliation made by defendants on the plaintiff's [sic] and others for verbal and/or written complaints made about condition [sic] and about the Warden and other officials failure to prevent harm that occurred prior to and during hurricane 'RITA', [sic] after a 'mandatory evacuation notice' was provided by Governor Perry and the Mayor of Beaumont," the inmates claim.

The complaint goes on to say that the warden and others "provided reckless and/or deliberate misleading information to the Regional Offices (for the Bureau of Prisons) in order to conduct and/or enforce unconstitutional policies."

The Bureau of Prisons not only allowed the staff to commit perjury, but went so far as to reward the officers with "raises and extra vacation time," the suit claims.

For the prison staff's actual intent and reckless and callous indifference to the Constitutional rights of the prisoners, the plaintiffs are seeking punitive damages, for each plaintiff, in excess of $10 million.

The original case, Melvin Spotts vs. U.S. Bureau of Prisons, is numbered 1:07-cv-00159-TH-ESH.

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