The Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) has requested that lawmakers double its fire-safety budget starting in September, following four deaths, thousands of safety violations, and over a decade of damning state reports. The request for $30 million aims to address over 8,000 safety violations identified in the latest inspection report, including missing fire extinguishers, broken smoke detectors, and non-functioning alarm systems in most of the facilities inspected. The budget request follows an investigation by the Houston Chronicle and The Marshall Project into the death of Jacinto De La Garza, who died in a fire at an East Texas lockup without working alarms. Since then, at least three other men have died in fires at other prisons.
Jacinto De La Garza’s family has sued the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) for violating his civil rights, with the case currently pending in federal district court in Lufkin. The TDCJ has asked for the legal complaint to be dismissed.
While a spokeswoman for the agency, Amanda Hernandez, declined to comment on the pending litigation, she did confirm that prison officials are working to address longstanding problems. In addition to the TDCJ’s request for $30 million from lawmakers, alarm-system repairs have already begun at one-third of the agency’s 98 lockups, with an additional 16 units scheduled for repairs this fiscal year, including the prison where De La Garza died.
Democratic Rep. Gene Wu of Houston stated, “This is a positive step, but unfortunately most of these maintenance issues are beyond overdue. Eventually, we’re going to need to either fix these problems or shut these units down because they’re no longer safe.” The current efforts to address these issues have been a long time coming. Since at least 2012, the Texas prison system has regularly violated state fire-safety standards. At that time, inspectors from the State Fire Marshal’s Office found that 237 prison facilities, which should have had functioning alarm systems, did not. In some cases, staff had submitted requests for repairs, but these were not carried out. The lack of working alarms is concerning in any congregate living environment, but it is particularly dangerous in high-security lockups, where starting fires has been used by people in solitary confinement to express their grievances, as found in an investigation. If prisoners are denied medical care, food, or access to showers or recreation, they may start fires by sticking razors or graphite pencils into outlets and holding flaming balls of paper close enough to catch fire before tossing them into hallways.
The intention of starting fires was to draw attention from high-ranking prison staff who might address issues that line officers had ignored, according to prisoners. While this strategy sometimes worked, it was not always successful. If officers ignored fires in units without functioning sprinklers or smoke detectors, the fires could sometimes burn unchecked for hours. By the end of 2019, the State Fire Marshal’s Office had identified nearly 3,000 fire safety violations, including non-functional alarm systems, missing safety testing records, and electrical violations in every unit inspected. However, the uncorrected safety issues received little attention until the COVID-19 pandemic, when guards began falling ill and quitting, resulting in fewer staff and worsening conditions, including an increase in reports of prison fires.
Incarcerated men eventually used contraband phones to send images of the fires to the outside world. The Marshall Project first reported on the fires and fire safety violations in late 2020, at which point a prison spokesman stated that the agency was aware of the state inspection reports and had “processes in place to mitigate issues identified” in them. After this report, the agency increased fire safety spending from $2.9 million in the budget year beginning in September 2020 to $8.6 million in the budget year starting in September 2021. Jacinto De La Garza died on November 11, 2021. Initially, prison investigators described his death as a heart attack, but later stated that he died from smoke inhalation after being trapped in a burning cell at the Gib Lewis Unit in East Texas.
According to other inmates in De La Garza’s unit, he had been acting strangely for weeks before his death. Eventually, he threatened to start a fire if the officer on duty did not get someone higher up to speak with him. A few minutes later, other prisoners reported that De La Garza started a blaze. “The flames reached half the door and I couldn’t see my friend anymore,” wrote David Pedraza, who could see De La Garza’s cell from his own across the unit. The other prisoners banged on their doors, trying to get help. The guard on duty called for backup, but by the time other officers arrived, De La Garza had been trapped in the cell for so long that one of his thick rubber shower shoes had melted onto his foot. The agency denied that the fire safety lapses played any role in De La Garza’s death, instead blaming prison staff who “failed to follow policy or training.”
Four months after De La Garza’s death, Damien Bryant, 31, died in a cell fire at the Beto Unit, a prison located 120 miles away. In July, James Salazar, 42, died following a fire in his cell at the Clements Unit in Amarillo. Less than a week later, Andre Ortiz, 37, died after a fire just outside his cell at the Coffield Unit in East Texas. Despite these fatalities, the most recent state inspection report found even more problems than in previous years. In 2022, the Fire Marshal’s Office identified over 8,200 violations in Texas prison buildings, representing more than 42% of all violations found by inspectors statewide, even though Texas prisons only made up a fifth of the total buildings inspected.
By the end of the current two-year budget period, which covers fiscal years 2022 and 2023, the agency expects to spend $14.3 million on fire safety. If lawmakers approve the budget request in the upcoming legislative session, that figure could increase to $30 million for 2024 and 2025. Some experts believe that these figures highlight the need for greater spending on basic fire safety measures. “This funding is so desperately overdue,” said Carlee Purdum, a Texas A&M University professor who studies mass incarceration. “The state of safety in our prison system is just abysmal.”
Source: Marshall Project