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More than 9,400 offenders moved to safety
TDCJ completes unprecedented evacuation ahead of hurricane landfall

When Rita roared, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice listened.

Prior to the huge Category 3 hurricane making landfall near Sabine Pass in far Southeast Texas, TDCJ completed its largest evacuation ever, utilizing ground vehicles and aircraft to move more than 9,400 offenders to safety.

Dormitory with top wall missing and debris strewn across grass
Hurricane Rita peeled away a wall from an offender dormitory at the Gist State Jail in Beaumont.
TDCJ Photo
“This is more offenders than we’ve ever moved before,” said Correctional Institutions Division Director Doug Dretke as the unprecedented evacuation was in full swing.

Offenders from 10 TDCJ facilities near the coast were evacuated over a two-day period. Buses carried 1,097 offenders from the Scott Unit in Angleton to the Ellis Unit in Huntsville and the Ferguson Unit in Midway. Another 1,132 offenders were moved from the Clemens Unit in Brazoria to the Hightower Unit in Dayton, and the Wynne and Estelle units in Huntsville. More than 1,570 offenders from the Terrell Unit in Rosharon were bused to either the Lewis Unit in Woodville, the Polunsky Unit in Livingston, or the Eastham Unit in Lovelady.

In Richmond, nearly 1,100 offenders from the Jester III Unit were transferred to the storm-sturdy Jester I and Jester IV facilities. Approximately 310 special needs offenders from the Young Unit in Texas City were relocated to the Estelle Unit in Huntsville, the Gatesville Unit in Gatesville, and the Plane State Jail in Dayton. The Plane facility also sheltered the 540 offenders from the neighboring Henley Unit for the duration of the storm.

Meanwhile, 71 prisoners being treated at the Hospital-Galveston Unit were evacuated to Palestine Memorial Hospital, Huntsville’s Estelle Unit, and the University of Texas medical facility in Tyler. TDCJ also evacuated approximately 340 juvenile offenders from the Texas Youth Commission (TYC) facility in Beaumont to TYC facilities in Giddings, Corsicana and Mart.

TDCJ cancelled plans to evacuate all offenders from the Ramsey I and Ramsey II units to other facilities when the storm unexpectedly turned away from the Brazoria County area, the original projected site of landfall, and headed east toward Sabine Pass. The agency then moved to evacuate offenders from the Gist State Jail and LeBlanc Unit in Beaumont, but traffic congestion in the area made a timely exodus impossible.

To compensate, the entire offender populations at LeBlanc and Gist were quickly moved to the neighboring Stiles Unit, a hardened maximum-security unit. Later, more than 1,300 offenders from LeBlanc and 170 parolees from a halfway house in Beaumont were airlifted to Corpus Christi aboard three aircraft provided by the U.S. Marshal’s Service. The airlifted prisoners were then bused to TDCJ facilities in Beeville. As soon as the storm passed, more than 2,100 offenders from Gist were bused to the Michael, Coffield and Beto units in Tennessee Colony. Another 253 offenders were moved from the Lewis Unit in Woodville to the Huntsville Unit.

The Parole Division moved another 400 parolees from a halfway house in Houston to various inland locations prior to the storm making landfall. Parole officers also contacted approximately 1,500 high-risk offenders in the Beaumont area so they could be tracked and supervised if ordered to evacuate.

“We went and saw all of our sex offenders and those on electronic monitoring prior to the storm to get an evacuation plan from them,” said Parole Division Director Bryan Collier. “They were given a toll-free number to call if they got evacuated and instructed to call and tell us where they were so we could supervise them wherever they ended up. With the high-risk offenders, we had to see them no matter where they were.”

Collier said parole officers worked out of an office in Beeville to help prison security officers with the parolees transported there. And as Rita shifted eastward toward Jefferson County, district parole offices in Nederland, Orange and Beaumont were closed and their staffs moved to a makeshift office inside the Stiles Unit chapel where they continued to supervise parolees remaining in the area.

“We put those officers from those offices who had not been evacuated at Stiles to basically run a parole office out of the unit,” Collier said.

Collier said the parole office in Nederland was so damaged by the storm that it was closed permanently and its staff absorbed by the Beaumont office.

“They were outstanding,” Collier said about the job parole officers did before and after the storm to protect public safety. “They performed beyond expectations and really made it happen.”

Hurricane Rita causes structural damage, no injuries to staff or offenders

TDCJ facilities from Beaumont to Jasper took a hard hit from Hurricane Rita, suffering some structural damage but no injuries from the storm that made landfall the morning of September 24th near the Texas-Louisiana border and then spun slowly northward.

Debris strewn across the yard near a building
Hurricane Rita ripped metal sheeting and insulation from the roof of the administration building at the Gist State Jail in Beaumont.
Photo by David Nunnelee
In Beaumont, Rita’s 120-mile-per-hour winds toppled a large part of the outermost perimeter fence at the Stiles Unit and rendered one vacant offender dormitory there temporarily uninhabitable. The hardy maximum-security unit that initially sheltered offenders from the neighboring LeBlanc Unit and Gist State Jail also reported the loss of roof vents on two buildings. The unoccupied Gist State Jail was not immediately inhabitable after the storm that peeled the roof off the administrative building and a wall from an offender dormitory.

The parole office in nearby Nederland was damaged beyond repair and permanently closed.

All three of the TDCJ prison facilities in Beaumont lost power and operated off of generators as the storm moved through. Power outages were reported at prison units throughout Southeast Texas, from the Scott Unit near Angleton to the Skyview/Hodge facilities in Rusk, where a tree fell across a power line.

In Jasper, the Goodman Unit suffered damage to an interior fence and lost its water supply for lack of power. Four water wagons, 1,300 cases of juice and 40,000 bottles of water were shipped initially to the facility along with 21,800 pre-packaged meals once the storm passed. Food, bottled water, portable toilets, batteries and fuel were transported to six East Texas units immediately following the storm. Some 43,000 ready-to-eat meals were trucked to Stiles along with two trailers of food and 126,000 bottles of water. The unit also initially received 37 relief officers from Region IV and Region VI, which continued to rotate staff into the unit as needed. Relief officers from Region V were also sent to the hard-hit area.

Approximately 5,000 offenders and 320 correctional personnel rode out the storm at Stiles. Employees displaced by the storm were temporarily sheltered at the Stiles and LeBlanc units. Within a few days, a shelter for staff and family members was set up at the neighboring Texas Youth Commission facility that had been evacuated prior to the storm making landfall. More than 350 officers from TDCJ facilities in and around Beaumont were housed in the shelter in wake of Rita. Family members of 75 officers whose homes were unlivable also sought shelter there.

The Lewis Unit in Woodville reported damage to a roof and an exterior wall as well as the loss of its communications antenna. In Dayton, the storm caused minor damage to a farm shop at the Hightower Unit and left the neighboring Plane and Henley state jail facilities without power and minor roof leaks. The Clemens Unit in Brazoria also reported a water leak caused by the storm.

In the Huntsville area, the Estelle Unit reported a power line down outside the expansion cellblock. The Ellis, Ferguson, Holliday, and Goree units also experienced temporary power outages but no structural damage.

Initial assessments put damage estimates at approximately $5 million.

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