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Operations returning to normal
Effects of Hurricane Rita still felt one month after
storm’s passage
CO writing down information on his clipboard as he checks in visitor in a truck.
CO III Clint Pickard checks in a visitor to the Gist State Jail in Beaumont where the gatehouse still showed the effects of Hurricane Rita a month after the storm.
Photo by David Nunnelee

She’s long gone, but scores of TDCJ employees stationed in Southeast Texas will forever remember Hurricane Rita as a harrowing, heartbreaking, and humbling storm.

“Very humbling, very humbling,” said Greg Dawson, senior warden at the Lewis Unit in Woodville. “In this position, you always want to feel like you’re in control. Well, you’re not in control. You’re at the mercy of whatever happens. So in that sense, it’s humbling.”

A month after Rita came ashore in late September, operations were getting back to normal at Lewis and at other TDCJ prison and parole facilities in the southeastern portion of the state. The outer perimeter fence felled by the storm at the Stiles Unit in Beaumont was back up and a portion of the roof torn from a housing dormitory was being replaced. Across the road from Stiles, the LeBlanc Unit was up and running much like before the storm. A leaning flagpole and paint pitted by windblown sand were the most visible reminders of Rita.

“It’s not as pretty as it was,” LeBlanc Senior Warden J.W. Mossbarger said about the unit then. “We had some roof damage and a lot of the things we had painted, like the archway, basically got sandblasted.”

The neighboring Gist State Jail still showed the deepest scars a month after the storm. Layers of plastic sheeting covered a large portion of the administration building where the roof had once been, and two empty dormitories heavily damaged in the Category 3 hurricane awaited repairs. Still, the staff was happy to be back on familiar ground after having been evacuated to the storm-sturdy Stiles Unit prior to Rita’s landfall.
“We’re glad to be home,” said Gist Senior Warden Reginald Goings. “The employees have been eager to come back. They’re more accustomed to being here.”

Goings estimated that the unit was about 60 percent operational a month after Rita. The state jail was being repopulated gradually and administrative staff members were able to find offices in the education building to work out of while the administration building awaited repair.

“Our officer turnout room is now our mailroom and our inmate records department,” said Gist Assistant Warden Dawn Williamson. “I’ve got the parole office as my office.”

Dirk Lorimer, senior warden at the Goodman Transfer Facility in Jasper, slept on a cot inside a walk-in closet off his office for a week following the storm that left his home near Beaumont significantly damaged. Although Rita’s whipping winds caused little structural damage at Goodman, the hurricane left the facility without power, running water or sewer for seven days.

“We were prepared,” Lorimer said. “We had everything locked down and tied down. We were just waiting. And when it hit, the city of Japer lost power so we had no running water or sewage. And then the phone lines went down. But we made it through it. That’s the important thing.”

The Stiles Unit operated off generators for two weeks after the storm, and went without sewer for five days.

“The happiest day was when the sewer came back up,” said Stiles Senior Warden Joe Smith. “You can run a prison without water and electricity, but it’s hard to manage without sewer.”

Still, Smith said the Emergency Command Center in Huntsville provided the unit with all the food, water, and fuel it needed while the city of Beaumont was without power.

“I don’t know how I would have been able to go without them,” he said. “Everything I needed, all I would have to do would be to make one phone call, tell them what I needed, and I wouldn’t have to worry about it. I never wanted for anything. They did a great job.”

Warden Lorimer said that he, too, got what he needed when he needed it.

“The command center in Huntsville did an excellent job filling our needs,” he said. “They were in constant contact with us, and I was impressed by how quickly our supplies got here.”

Thirty miles to the west, four hours of whistling winds and rain left the Lewis Unit in Woodville shaken but secure. Within days, a section of roof torn away from a dormitory was repaired and a collapsed wall was back up. Warden Dawson said it was important to him to have the damage repaired quickly.

“I wanted every remnant of that storm gone as soon as possible,” he said. “It was very important for the morale of the staff because the only normalcy they saw was when they came here. They sure didn’t have normalcy at home.”

Dawson said he still had nine employees who had no permanent place to live a month after Rita damaged or destroyed their homes. It was the same story at units and parole offices throughout the region.

“We still have some staff with issues because of their homes being damaged, but beyond that, we’re up and operational,” said Parole Division Director Bryan Collier on the one-month anniversary of the storm’s landfall.

At one point in the days following Rita, more than 350 displaced TDCJ employees - 75 with family members - from the affected area were staying in a shelter set up in an empty Texas Youth Commission facility adjacent to the three TDCJ units in Beaumont. Initially, a number of employees had been made virtual prisoners of the storm because they either couldn’t get home from their duty posts or no longer had a place to go back to that was livable.

“The unit came out good,” Warden Lorimer said at Goodman. “Some of the staff didn’t fare so well. Rita is gone, but she’s still here, too. Everybody had some damage.”

Forty-six employees from the LeBlanc Unit weren’t able to return home for four days.

“They were pretty much pushed as far as they could go,” said Warden Mossbarger. “A lot of them broke, but they came right back.”

Indeed, TDCJ administrators in the storm-struck area all praised the resiliency and devotion to duty demonstrated by their employees during and after the storm.

“You learn that you have employees that step up to the plate and do whatever you ask of them,” said Warden Smith at Stiles. “We bent them, we broke them, we molded them back together, and they were, truly, some of the best staff that I could ever ask for.”

“You find when something like this happens that individuals you didn’t realize had the dedication and commitment to the agency do have it,” said Gist Assistant Warden Dawn Williamson. “They really come through for you in the long run. I was just real proud of them. They’re my heroes.”

“I’m so proud of the staff here,” Warden Dawson added enthusiastically. “Not only were they dealing with the issues here, but they were also dealing with the fact that their families were at home. And in some cases, they had no contact with their families. Everyday is getting better, but it’s not over yet.”

Because gasoline was in short supply in the days immediately following the storm, Dawson arranged for the local school district to have volunteer drivers bus his employees to and from work, a shuttle service that ran for two weeks. Dawson and the wardens at the other affected units also arranged for the American Red Cross and representatives of the Federal Emergency Management Agency to come to the units to provide their employees with assistance since many were unable to leave their posts. Post-trauma counseling was also made available to all employees.

“I believe their spirits are back up,” Smith said about his staff in late October. “Things are going close to normal for them now, and I think everybody is wanting to block that two-week period out their mind. There’s very little conversation about it.”

“Actually, it turned out to be a pretty good team-building experience,” Dawson said. “It brought everybody together. We all went through a common struggle. In that situation, whether you’re the warden or you’re a clerk, it makes no difference. Everybody went through the same struggle and we bonded in it.”

“The people that went through it bonded, and I don’t think anybody will ever be able to break that bond,” added Williamson. “They were there together.”

Still, all the TDCJ employees who weathered Rita say one hurricane is enough.

“It’s probably the most challenging thing I’ve dealt with in my career,” said Warden Mossbarger. “I’ve been through some storms and I’ve been through some evacuations, but I’ve never been involved in anything like this. It definitely pushed not only myself, but also my staff. But it showed me that anything you want to do, you can do. You’ve got to be pushed. And we got pushed.”

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Texas Board of Criminal Justice experiences transition with appointment of new members

During the last couple of months, a transition has taken place among the members of the Texas Board of Criminal Justice. With the appointment of three new members this past November, the agency has experienced the departure of Vice-Chairman Don Jones, Secretary Hank Moody and Judge Mary Bacon.

On November 3, Governor Rick Perry appointed Pastor Charles Lewis “C.L.” Jackson of Houston, Tom Mechler of Claude, and Leopoldo R. Vasquez, III of Houston, to terms expiring February 2011. Each of these individuals’ experience and expertise will be beneficial in accomplishing the agency’s mission of providing for public safety.

Portrait of Pastor Charles Lewis Jackson
Pastor Charles Lewis
"C.L." Jackson

Pastor Jackson, a member of the clergy for 44 years, is pastor of the Pleasant Grove Missionary Baptist Church in Houston, a position he has held for 36 years. His experience and talent help guide the planning and implementation of ministries in the church, as well as through various media outlets, on the streets, and in prisons and jails. Through his church, he coordinates various community and ministry programs, including an on-site academy, day care and a family life center.

Pastor Jackson has authored several biblical books and produced more than 2,000 recordings. He has ministered across the nation and abroad, preaching and teaching in numerous countries, to include South Africa, and has helped establish seminaries in many third world countries. In addition to his ministries, Pastor Jackson currently serves as the chairman of the OneStar Foundation. OneStar is a non-profit, non-partisan organization dedicated to increasing the impact and effectiveness of Texas civil society through greater promotion and support of volunteerism, stronger collaboration and partnerships, and healthier non-profit organizations.

Portrait of Tom Mechler
Tom Mechler

Mr. Mechler is president of Makar Production Company, which operates oil and gas properties in Texas, and directs various entrepreneurial activities in the oil and gas business. He has been involved in the oil and gas business for over 25 years, working in Wyoming, Alaska and Texas.

Mr. Mechler holds a master’s degree in business administration from The Wharton School, the University of Pennsylvania, and a bachelor’s of science in mechanical engineering from Texas A & M University, where he graduated magna cum laude. In addition to his professional career, Mr. Mechler has served as a volunteer prison chaplain within TDCJ facilities since 2003.

Portrait of Leopoldo R. Vasquez III
Leopoldo R. Vasquez, III

Mr. Vasquez has over 17 years of experience in corporate finance and business operations. His background ranges from work in Wall Street’s global financial markets, to serving as president of a civil construction and industrial services company, and as chief operating officer of a defense electronics manufacturing firm. In his current position, Mr. Vasquez serves as the chief financial officer for Houston-based Cadeco Industries, Inc., which operates the largest, most diversified independent coffee processing facility in the United States.

Mr. Vasquez earned his bachelor of arts degree in economics from Yale University and his master’s in business administration degree in finance from Columbia University Graduate School of Business. He most recently served the State of Texas as the commission chairman of the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulations.

As TDCJ looks forward to the contributions of our new members, it is with great respect and gratitude that we say farewell to Mr. Jones, Mr. Moody and Judge Bacon. Their unselfish service and devotion to the agency during their tenure as members of the Board has been tremendous and beyond measure.

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