The GEO Group has responded aggressively to the detainees’ claims, saying the inmates suffered no more than everyone else in Houston.
Hundreds of former inmates are suing the for-profit operator of a halfway house they say “utterly failed” them during Hurricane Harvey.
The plaintiffs—more than 200 in total—say they were abandoned as Harvey bore down on Houston in 2017. Even with the halfway house flooded and surrounded by toxic waste, staff refused to release or assist the inmates in any significant way. The lawsuit characterizes the ensuing conditions as “barbaric,” with the men lacking access to clean water, food and medical care.
While the halfway house wasn’t secure, none of the men felt free to leave. That’s due, in large part, to officials telling them that they’d be in violation of their parole if they so much as tried.
“It was a total disaster,” Henry Thigpen told The Houston Chronicle. Thigpen was one of about 500 parolees who rode out Harvey inside the Southeast Texas Transitional Center before officials sent the entire group back to prison. “They left us there to fend for ourselves.”
The Chronicle reports that the GEO Group—the Center’s for-profit contractor, which operates similar facilities across the United States—denied the allegations but offered no further comment.
“Plaintiffs no doubt experienced inconveniences during Hurricane Harvey flooding, just like the STTC staff and every resident of Harris County and southeast Texas,” GEO attorneys wrote. “Like nearly all of Houston, the flooding made plaintiffs normal routines impossible.”
The attorneys’ claims differ markedly from the inmates’, with GEO saying that floodwaters inside the center never went above calf-height. They also maintain food and clean water reserves were available throughout the hurricane.
The Chronicle adds that GEO contracts with the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. Its Southeast Texas Transitional Center is a converted bible college. All of the inmates are on parole—the center’s purpose is, ostensibly, to keep track of inmates while helping them adjust to life outside prison. While inmates don’t have to wear uniforms—they can work and even own cell phones—they’re not free to come and go as they’d like. The Chronicle says the center has a gate and that parolees are prohibited from leaving on their own accord.
During Harvey, inmates say water levels were so deep many fled to the center’s second floor—their retreat was due not only to the water’s increasing depth but its “foul” smell, too.
“There was no clean water,” Houston-based attorney Scott Arnold told the Chronicle. “You’d turn on the faucet and you’d get brown stuff coming up.”
Some of the inmates had medical conditions—isolated and alone, they turned to one another for support.
“It still haunts me today,” Thigpen said. “I’d never been in a situation like that where I had to take care of mentally ill and physically handicapped people. We had to physically hold them down so they wouldn’t go out there and drown.”
But GEO Group’s statement, reprinted in part by the Houston Chronicle, spins a much different account.
“Affected parolees and their bedding were temporarily moved to the second floor of their dorms,” a GEO attorney wrote. “The facility staff stayed on-site around the clock to mitigate the flooding, to maintain essential functions like the kitchen and medication room, and to conduct rounds, roll calls, and counts.”
GEO says that not only were their staff present but weathering the “exact same conditions” as the parolees.