When Winter Storm Uri hit Texas, Holli Wrice — a woman incarcerated at a federal medical prison in the Dallas-Fort Worth area — had just gotten out of medical isolation after testing positive for COVID two weeks earlier. The storm, which hit over Presidents’ Day weekend, wreaked havoc across the state, leaving millions without power.
The federal medical camp at Carswell (FMC Carswell) where Wrice is incarcerated avoided the power outages that swept the state. But the storm left the prison — and the 1066 women confined there — without heat or hot water during a frigid weekend that dropped as low as 5 degrees Fahrenheit.
FMC Carswell is the country’s only federal medical prison for women. The majority of women there have serious medical issues that cannot be treated at other prisons. Over the past year, the prison has been hard hit by COVID-19. Of the 1285 tests administered to the 1066 women there, nearly 60 percent, or 765, came back positive. This includes Wrice, who tested positive at the end of January and was shuttled around to various parts of the prison during her two-week isolation. When Uri hit, Wrice was still feeling physically weakened and exhausted from the virus. Then, she had to contend with the havoc that the storm wreaked on the prison’s utilities.
Wrice agreed to go on record, using her full name, with Truthout. “Hell, they have thrown me in a snake pit and I’ve contracted COVID-19. What else could they possibly do to me?” she wrote. Other women, however, feared retaliation from prison staff and requested that their full names not be published.
“Sewage Water Was Everywhere”
On the night of Saturday, February 13, a pipe burst in one of the bathrooms. “Water was gushing like a faucet,” wrote Simone, who asked that her full name not be used for fear of reprisals for speaking with media. An officer managed to turn the water off, but by then it had seeped into some of the women’s cubicles, drenching their possessions.
The timeline given by the Bureau of Prisons differs. In an email to Truthout, Emery Nelson of the BOP’s public affairs division, stated that on Sunday, February 14, a problem with the hot water heater required shutting water off to conduct repairs. “Inmates were given advance warning of the planned water shut-off and were provided additional water during the repair period, which lasted approximately four hours,” Nelson wrote.
The next day, Monday, February 15, there was a leak in a potable supply unit. But, Nelson noted, the unit continued to have access to potable water, including hot water for showers and the ability to flush toilets. “Please note, FMC Carswell did not experience a sewage leak and at no time was there sewage inside the housing unit,” he wrote.
But that’s not what the women inside Carswell reported. “Sewage water was everywhere,” Wrice told Truthout, adding that in some parts of the housing unit, the water was ankle deep. Women incarcerated in the unit attempted to clean up the sewage-infested water but lacked gloves and other protective gear.
Simone had recently contracted COVID and was still recovering. Nonetheless, she attempted to help clean but slipped and fell, hitting her head against the wall and scraping open her elbow. She remained in pain and, a few hours later, was sent to the prison’s medical clinic. By the time she returned, she said women were still attempting to clean the water, getting soaked in the process.
The burst pipe rendered that bathroom out of commission, so the 300 women on that particular housing unit were forced to share a bathroom with the unit above them. In that one bathroom, now shared by over 500 women, cold water trickled out of the sinks; four of the sinks were, Wrice reported, out of commission.
Two other women, who asked not to be identified, separately told Truthout that the water had been on and off intermittently since February 13. They too stated that the women were left without water for drinking, washing their hands or flushing the toilets.
“We Have Been Without Water for More Than Seven Hours”
On Sunday, Wrice said, the water stopped running altogether.
“We have been without water for more than seven hours,” Wrice reported. Women were unable to flush the toilets, which quickly filled with feces and urine. Women defecated into trash bags, which began to pile up, but lacked running water to wash their hands. Wrice, who lost her sense of smell after contracting COVID, was thankful that she was spared the stench, but still worried that she was breathing in the toxins from the piled-up waste.
According to multiple women who spoke to Truthout, seven hours after the water had stopped, prison staff allowed some of the women to walk to the prison’s hospital building with five-gallon buckets. At the hospital, which had not lost water, women filled the buckets with water, then schlepped them across the snow to the housing unit, and bucket-flushed the toilets. But, with over 500 women from both units using them, the toilets soon filled with human waste again.
By Monday, February 15, they said prison staff had managed to turn the water back on, though it remained cold and only trickled from the faucets.
“We still have no heat,” Wrice reported. That day, temperatures in Fort Worth only reached 14 degrees; that night, they dipped to one degree.
On Wednesday, February 17, women incarcerated at Carswell said it still had no heat. Wrice always wears a surgical mask but saw that, for the women who had pulled theirs down to their chins, the air was cold enough to see their exhalations. Every woman wore as many layers as she possibly could. Wrice wore two pairs of sweats. But, she added, “when you are in a concrete block I don’t care what you put on, you’re cold when the heat goes out.”
Several women also reached out to the CAN-DO Foundation, a non-profit that advocates for clemency for people incarcerated for federal drug offenses. In one message, a woman with Raynaud’s disease, which causes blood vessels to narrow in the cold, reiterated the futility of bundling up. She wore two t-shirts, a long sleeve t-shirt, two sweatshirts, two pairs of sweatpants and two pairs of socks, but even with these layers, she said her fingers were often black from lack of blood circulation. “This cold is going right through me,” she wrote. She also noted that many women on her housing unit had recently contracted COVID and, while no longer in isolation, were still struggling to recover; many were still coughing, short of breath and suffering headaches.
FMC Carswell issued two thin blankets and two flat sheets to each woman, but these did little to stave off the constant cold. That night, staff issued an additional blanket to each woman. The one that Wrice was issued was equally as thin and marred by a large brown stain. In an effort to keep warm, women slept in their hats and gloves.
The lack of heat and hot water also affected their ability to eat. Wrice, Simone and a third woman reported that the meals issued on Wednesday arrived still-frozen.
The Bureau of Prisons disputes these accounts, saying that, while the prison “experienced minor power, heat, and hot water issues that affected the main supply channels,” the prison’s back-up systems managed to maintain power, heat and hot water until the main supply issues were resolved. They also stated that the prison experienced a brief power outage on Wednesday, necessitating supplying women with boxed lunches and dinners that day; they did not comment on the allegation of frozen meals.
By Wednesday night, the heat had come back on. Still, the women worried about their health, knowing that, even after the storm, the threat of COVID loomed.
“If They Can’t Take Care of Us, Release Us”
In April 2020, following the passage of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, then-Attorney General William Barr issued a memo to the Bureau of Prisons (BOP), the agency responsible for federal prisons (including FMC Carswell), expanding the criteria for releasing people in federal prison to home confinement, including those with certain vulnerabilities to COVID.
But release has been slow. The Bureau of Prisons reports that, since the start of the pandemic, it has released 21,813 people to home confinement (including people who have since completed their sentences). However, across the BOP’s prisons, many with medical vulnerabilities have been denied release to home confinement with little to no explanation. There are currently 151,735 people in federal custody, approximately the same population as in 2001.
Several women at Carswell have filed lawsuits for immediate release from Carswell, noting that the prison’s skyrocketing COVID rate jeopardized their health and lives. However, a district court ruled in August 2020 that courts do not have the power to grant relief under the CARES Act.
With the inauguration of President Joe Biden, the National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls, a national advocacy organization, has called on the new president to grant 100 clemencies during his first 100 days in office, including 30 currently at Carswell.
“We have received messages from numerous women about these conditions, which are clearly a violation of the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment,” Catherine Sevcenko, senior counsel for the National Council, told Truthout. “This is unconscionable. These women are human beings, vulnerable ones because they are ill. The BOP and the federal government should take immediate action to make Carswell inhabitable.”
In prisons like Carswell, the winter storm has made inhumane conditions of incarceration even more deadly.
“They continue to put our lives in jeopardy,” wrote Simone. “If they can’t take care of us adequately, [then] release us.”