As the virus spread, prisoners have been forced into a life or death situation. In addtion, they can’t see their families, many can’t leave their cells, thousands can’t get anything to eat but bad rations.
Dozens of videos taken inside Texas prisons over the course of the pandemic show crackling blazes outside of cells, in stairwells, and in housing areas. Prisoners set these fires, to attract the attention of officials who might address whatever problems the overextended guards aren’t tending to, including poor food, dirty clothes, or no access to showers.
Prison officials have been ignoring their actions, made easier because more than 200 Texas prison buildings do not have working fire alarm systems. Last year’s annual inspection report found 2,925 safety violations in the prison system, which corrected only 167 of them, or less than 6 percent.
The current situation is extremely dangerous for prisoners and prison staff.
Incarcerated persons can’t protect themselves. You combine the risks of COVID-19 and a situation where there’s not adequate safety infrastructure in place: a recipe for a disaster.
On person incarcerated in Texas says: “It’s a nonviolent protest going on right now because the officers, in the middle of the coronavirus, have refused us electricity for several hours, no showers or anything.
In the months since, prisoners across the state have shared accounts, videos and pictures documenting the fires. In some clips men in a smoke-filled unit screamed, “We can’t breathe! We can’t breathe!” after staff members did not respond to fires that smoldered for hours.
Other video taken a few days later showed the red glow of flames from a tier of cells below. “That’s a fire,” a male voice says. “They’re not trying to put it out or nothing.”
One prisoner said sometimes the flames continued unabated for hours, while men at other units reported separate fires two or three times a day.