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Prisoners in cages doesn’t violate policy because there is no policy, says Texas official

Flickr Creative Common

A Texas state prison was found holding men in spaces without bathrooms, beds or water access for as many as seven nights. Gib Lewis Unit, a Texas Department of Criminal Justice Prison in deep East Texas, was using the holding cells. The state prison ombudsman said the holding cells were too small to live in and found the institution erred in their extended use, calling it “unreasonable.”

Despite the observation, the practice violated no Texas Department of Criminal Justice policies, said Brian Patrick, director of the TDCJ office of the Independent Ombudsman, in a findings letter. “We cannot substantiate the allegation staff violated policy … because a policy specifying length of time spent in [a holding cell] does not appear to exist.”

The Texas Civil Rights Project and Texas Prison Reform said the prison violated state policy, federal standards and international norms by holding men in cages that were too small to lie down in and left men without adequate access to water or bathroom facilities, calling it a “humanitarian crisis.”

Men at Gib Lewis Unit in East Texas are at times put in holding cells for days

“It is kind of an interesting situation that there just aren't policies around something so blatantly inhumane,” said Molly Petchenik, legal fellow at the Texas Civil Rights Project. “But it is heartening that the ombudsman said that it was clearly unreasonable behavior.”

The TCRP complaint shared with TPR said men were using water bottles to urinate in and at times defecating in paper bags, when staff were unable to get them to a bathroom.

The use of the cells was not arbitrary, said Patrick, as TCRP had alleged. It was the product of a large increase in mentally ill inmates at the facility, growing from 500-700. The inmates' classification comes with additional staff requirements.

"The cells were being utilized by staff so they could constantly observe inmates who had expressed or attempted to harm themselves," said Amanda Hernandez, director of communications for TDCJ.

Feeble staffing levels across Texas prisons have hampered many basic functions. Gib Lewis had just over 50% of its fulltime 361 positions filled at the end of February.

A screenshot of one of the Ombusman's findings at Gib Lewis Unit
Office of the Independent Ombudsman, TDCJ
A screenshot of one of the Ombusman's findings at Gib Lewis Unit

The ombudsman found the holding cells at the prison — there are less than a half dozen — were used in many of the ways described by the complaint. But the practice was ended in February, after the complaint and TPR’s story and prior to the inspection.

"The agency has since stopped using them. There are policies in place regarding the observation of suicidal inmates and those are being reviewed to provide additional clarity to staff," said Hernandez in a statement.

Along with developing and implementing a policy governing holding cell use, the ombudsman recommended the cells remain vacant until a policy is in place. The office recommended a maximum time use of 12 hours for the temporary accommodations.

TDCJ is reviewing its current policies to ensure it follows the recommendations.

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Paul Flahive can be reached at Paul@tpr.org