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North Texas state prison drains nearby town’s water

A water tower near Sanders Estes Correctional Center is without water after it went dry Thursday, Aug. 3, 2023.
Yfat Yossifor
A water tower near Sanders Estes Correctional Center went dry earlier this week, leaving the town without enough water pressure to operate its water utility. Service has since been restored, but the city of Venus is now under a boil notice. City officials say a leak at Sanders Estes was the cause.

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A state prison in North Texas sucked a town's water supply dry earlier this week, even draining a 200,000 gallon water tank, according to officials.

The water supply for Venus — population 5,700 — has been restored but it remains under a boil notice after suffering days of low water pressure.

Last Thursday, Venus city officials told prison administrators at Sanders Estes Unit, the state prison nearby, that their facility had a break in a 4 inch water line on its property.

Prison officials said they would fix it but didn't, said Brandon Gazaway, Venus’ director of public works.

"We found out Monday morning [that] they let it go all weekend, just running. And doing that with the amount of water that we had that main water tower — they drained it,” he said. “They've got a ton of water all over the ground."

The water line break being untended for so long rendered the city-owned utility without enough pressure to run. Residents of the small city south of Fort Worth were left suffering as a result.

“They're upset. They want to know who to point their fingers at,” he said.

The prison is owned by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, but it doesn't manage it. A private prison group called Management and Training Corporation (MTC) is in charge, and its officials said they learned about the leak over the weekend and tried to fix it.

“The correct parts to make the repair were not immediately available, so maintenance staff were unable to fix the water line until Monday morning,” said Emily Lawhead, director of corporate communications for MTC in an email.

The accounts differ over when the prison found out about the leak and how. MTC said their staff discovered the leak two days after city officials said they had already told them.

It wasn’t clear why the prison didn’t notify Venus’ utility, which could have cut off the water sooner and protected the city’s drinking water.

In a statement, MTC said it had worked closely with the city and followed their guidance. But, the statement explained, it was city that determined the water tower level and pressure were normal over the weekend, and so it did not turn off the water.

City officials did not respond to TPR's request for comment on MTC's explanation.

Gazaway estimated the water tower to be around 200,000 gallons. It is the city’s reserve and hasn’t run dry during the three years Gazaway has been in the job. The last time it did, he said, it was again a result of the Sanders Estes prison.

The Sanders Estes Correctional Center is without water after the water tower went dry Thursday, Aug. 3, 2023, in Venus.
Yfat Yossifor
The Sanders Estes Correctional Center is without water after the water tower went dry Thursday, Aug. 3, 2023, in Venus.

“The prison had a massive failure with their own line, and it drained the tower,” he said of issues with their prison neighbors. “Beyond that, nothing that's rendered the town helpless like it has the past couple of days.”

Gazaway noted that the only other damage that the prison has caused was in wastewater. He said the volume of irregular objects being flushed down the toilet in the facility had damaged pumps — at times shutting down a nearby pumping station. The congestion — possibly caused by contraband — convinced the city to invest hundreds of thousands of dollars in new pumps.

Inside Sanders Estes, the water was off for the better part of two days. Inmates have been complaining to family members that they haven’t been able to shower or get enough to drink.

“The inmates are provided water as needed. We have brought in extra water to assist due to this,” said Amanda Hernandez, director of communications for TDCJ.

Hernandez declined to answer TPR's questions about Venus’ water troubles and TDCJ’s facility's responsibility for the city-wide shutdown and boil notice, other than to confirm the agency had been alerted.

MTC did eventually fix the line, and water has been restored.

Sanders Estes is a 1,000 person minimum security facility with — according to MTC’s website — additional programming for prisoners. It is also air conditioned.

Sanders Estes will return to TDCJ management at the end of the month, after years under MTC.

“This decision was strictly a business decision and was a result of state budgetary considerations,” Lawhead explained.

MTC has been accused of defrauding the state out of millions of dollars for in-person therapy they didn’t provide during the COVID-19 pandemic. According to reports, the organization directed inmates to falsify paperwork about their treatment. Ultimately, they were cleared of wrongdoing because state prison administrators had approved the practice.

Some residents of Venus questioned whether the lack of responsiveness to the water break was due to the impending transition back into state hands. The company denied the allegation.

According to the state, MTC will continue to manage eight TDCJ facilities.

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Paul Flahive can be reached at Paul@tpr.org