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"It's like we're not even human": Texas inmates face frigid temperatures during weather crisis

A locally-run juvenile justice center that holds 105 children in North Texas went three days without running water and heat this week. The Lynn W. Ross Juvenile Detention Center in Fort Worth is just one of many correctional facilities across the state that struggled with harsh conditions when a winter storm devastated the Lone Star State's power grid.

The juvenile center lost power Sunday and fully regained heat and power by Thursday, a correctional officer said. At the height of the storm, the coldest room at the juvenile center had a temperature of 27 degrees Fahrenheit, the officer said. The children were unable to contact their families until Wednesday.

One parent said she was also left in the dark. Officials at the justice center never notified her of the disruption, she said, and she only learned of the issues by speaking to her daughter over the phone Wednesday. 

"If you have a problem at your facility and you are holding someone's child, that facility, whoever is the authority. I don't care who it is. They should have picked up the phone," said Joyce Pipkin, whose 16-year-old daughter is housed at the juvenile center. "Every single parent should have been notified that there is an issue going on."

Officials at the juvenile center did not return CBS News' messages for comment.

The deadly storm knocked out power to millions and left inmates with little recourse to protect themselves from the cold. Some were forced to skip meals due to shortages and go without essential supplies, while others dealt with clogged toilets that couldn't flush due to plumbing issues.

Winter Storm Inmates
The Lynn W. Ross Juvenile Detention Center Google Maps

Krish Gundu, executive director of the Texas Jail Project, said the disaster behind bars was the "culmination of a system designed to punish" some of the most vulnerable members of the community. "We could have prevented this mounting public health crisis by taking a smart approach to depopulating our jails." 

At county-run jails, about 80% of people behind bars are still awaiting trial, the organization said.

Jimmy Weidman, an inmate at the locally-run Victoria County Jail, said the facility hasn't had running water since Tuesday afternoon, causing his toilet to flood. "It's nasty in here. Our commode is full of feces right now. I've been asking them four or five times to bring down a bucket so we can dump that in there and flush it," he said. 

"We're urinating in the shower, where we're supposed to take a shower — go figure."

Weidman said the facility, which holds over 370 people in custody, is giving each inmate four bottles of water each day, which they drink and use for hygiene purposes. Still, he said he hasn't been able to shower since losing access to running water. 

Harris County Jail, the nation's third-largest jail, holds nearly 9,000 inmates. The locally-run facility experienced intermittent power outages this week, along with the loss of water pressure, said Jason Spencer, a spokesman for the county sheriff's office. When the buildings lost power, they relied on backup generators. But for several hours, Spencer said, there was a period where the generators also lost power. 

"The toilet and water had been off for 24 hours. The sinks are dirty. It's just nasty. It's just not right — it's like we're not even human," said Eric Harison, a 38-year-old inmate at the jail. "For the first three days, we basically just tried to stay in place, and stay in bed to stay warm."

All power and water pressure were restored by Friday, according to Spencer. 

The conditions at Harris County forced some correctional officers to work up to 16 hours for a single shift and stay overnight, which is standard in emergency situations, according to Spencer. "It was a real trial for our staff and for the people in our care. They dealt with a lot of obstacles in their effort to maintain a comfortable environment, and they did a really good job considering the challenges they faced."

Harris County Jail
Harris County Jail in 2019. Patrick Feller/Flickr

The issues expanded to nearly all prisons and jails run by the state, along with 100 office locations, according to Jeremy Desel, a spokesperson for the state's Department of Criminal Justice. Thirty-two prisons and jails lost power and were running on generators. Another 33 had low water pressure or lost water from outside sources. As of Friday, power was restored at all 106 facilities, Diesel said.

For months, the Fort Worth juvenile center faced a shortage of blankets, leaving the children with little protection from the cold, the correctional officer said. Due to the shortage, some received "suicide blankets," which are reserved for children who are at risk of suicide.

"We need more blankets. We can't understand why they won't purchase them," the officer said. 

A couple from Northwood Church in Fort Worth heard about the blanket shortage from their parish's Facebook page and immediately sought ways to help, purchasing enough blankets for each child at the facility. But officials refused the blankets, citing safety protocols and saying the extra blankets weren't necessary.

The juvenile center did not respond to questions about the donation.

"It's the mama bear instinct if you hear that kids are suffering. I'm gonna do whatever it takes to make them better," said the church member who asked to remain anonymous. Instead, the couple donated the blankets to local homeless shelters. 

District Judge Alex Kim commended their efforts. "It warms my heart that they would get together to find resources to help the kids that were in detention that couldn't help themselves."

Kim, who toured the facility Wednesday, explained that administrators have to be cautious of all materials that go inside the facility. "Every item that comes in has to go through an approval process to ensure that they cannot harm themselves with the supplies provided to them." 

While Kim released nine juveniles he thought were not a risk to the public or themselves, only administrators at the center can approve or decline what donations are accepted. 

"They could have handled it better. Just check on generators, have blankets, have backup heating systems," said Trent Loftin, a criminal defense attorney in Fort Worth.

"I think the system just failed."

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