Texas Prisons Defy Fire Security Requirements. Now, 2 Males Have Died.

The final time the opposite prisoners noticed Jacinto De La Garza alive, he had his face pressed in opposition to the glass panel of his cell door, his mouth contorted and gasping for breath.

Black smoke curled round his head, they stated, and flames leapt from the burning pile of garments behind him.

The different males shouted and threw trash on the lone guard on responsibility, making an attempt to goad him into motion.

Minutes handed. The smoke thickened.

“Then, we didn’t hear anything,” stated Elijah Woods, who lived within the cell subsequent door in a high-security part of the Gib Lewis jail in East Texas. Woods is amongst a half dozen incarcerated males who described the Nov. 11, 2021, blaze in interviews with and letters to The Marshall Project.

Prison investigators first described 26-year-old De La Garza’s dying as a coronary heart assault. But in a later report, they stated that he died of smoke inhalation, trapped in his burning cell. His was considered one of two such deaths within the Texas jail system in lower than six months. In March, Damien Bryant, 31, died in a cell hearth at a jail 120 miles away; the corrections division stated he could have been suicidal.

At some Texas lockups, cell fires are a part of life behind bars. For years, prisoners and workers say, beginning them has been one of many ways in which males in solitary air their grievances after they can’t get medical consideration, heat meals or an opportunity to go exterior for recreation.

But if the state had finished its half years earlier, the deaths of De La Garza and Bryant might need been prevented.

For greater than a decade, the Texas jail system has flouted state hearth security requirements by failing to deal with inspectors’ issues about insufficient alarm methods. Without sprinklers to douse a blaze or functioning alarms to power guards to reply, prisoners have stated, fires in some housing areas have burned for hours.

The Marshall Project first uncovered the protection failings in late 2020, when males reported setting fires to protest deteriorating COVID circumstances. A state report issued one month after De La Garza’s dying exhibits that whereas the company corrected some violations, it didn’t come near fixing the issue, noting that “most of the fire alarm systems aren’t functioning properly.”

At Gib Lewis, the latest hearth security inspection report — from 2018 — discovered that there have been no sprinklers, the smoke detectors had not been maintained, and there was no energy going to the fireplace alarms in lots of housing areas.

An company spokesman confirmed that the fireplace alarm system there’s nonetheless not purposeful in all housing areas. But he disputed that fire-equipment lapses performed a task in De La Garza’s dying. “Staff failed to follow policy or training,” Robert Hurst wrote in an e-mail. “It was their level of complacency and not an equipment issue that resulted in the serious incident.”

Tlisted here are a couple of methods to begin a fireplace in a Texas lockup. Because lighters and matches are banned, prisoners repurpose wires from followers, radios and sizzling pots to create a heating coil, or they stick razors and graphite pencils into the shops of their cell partitions to spark flames. Then, they maintain items of paper shut by to catch the blaze. When the fires get large enough, they typically toss the flaming balls of paper out of their cells to burn in widespread areas.

“Fires happen all the time,” Maurice Christie, who can also be incarcerated at Gib Lewis, wrote in a letter. “It’s been going on forever — I started my first fire because the pill lady passed my cell and wouldn’t acknowledge me.”

Amid workers shortages and months-long lockdowns throughout the pandemic, some prisoners used contraband telephones to share photographs of the fires with The Marshall Project.

Many states have hearth security methods in all areas housing prisoners. Of the 30 jail companies that responded to The Marshall Project’s questions, 25 stated there have been alarms or sprinklers in housing items. Three states indicated that was true in most prisons, and one — Florida — refused to say.

Texas didn’t reply to questions on whether or not its hearth security methods cowl all housing areas. Several prisoners laughed when requested in the event that they’d ever lived in jail housing with working smoke detectors or sprinklers.

“That’s not in our vocabulary,” stated David Pedraza, who befriended De La Garza in his closing days at Gib Lewis, which is on the outskirts of Woodville, south of Lufkin.

When De La Garza went to jail for aggravated assault in 2019, his household visited usually, kinfolk stated. But then the corrections division moved him farther from their dwelling in South Texas, and the pandemic shut down all visitation.

His letters dwelling remained upbeat, however he was hardly ever ready to make use of the telephone, stated his sister, Emily De La Garza.

“He would go months without him reaching out to us,” she stated. Relatives started to fret he’d fall again into despair, or drug use.

Other prisoners all described him as quiet, however a number of stated they seen a change in early November. They watched him tempo in his cell, speaking to himself. Next door, Woods, heard him raging.

“He was beating on the steel bunk and toilet,” he stated. “For three or four days this was going on.”

A handwritten letter by Elijah Woods shows text including the words, "He was allowed to die a horrendous death by smoke inhalation and heat from the fire he tried to ask for help from the officer."

It appeared that his neighbor was pissed off as a result of he hadn’t been exterior for days, Woods stated. The jail, like many others in Texas, was understaffed, with virtually half the guard positions unfilled.

The officer on responsibility — a brand new rent named Cody DeGlandon — stated in an interview that De La Garza appeared agitated and paranoid. Eventually, the person threatened to set a fireplace if the officer didn’t get somebody larger as much as come down.

A bit after 7 p.m., DeGlandon referred to as for assist, he stated, however higher-ups instructed him to attend to see if the state of affairs obtained extra severe. So he turned his consideration to different duties.

The blaze began small, however then De La Garza added extra gasoline, tossing on his jacket and the stuffing from his mattress.

“The flames reached half the door and I couldn’t see my friend anymore,” wrote Pedraza, who lived in a cell throughout from De La Garza. “When I no longer saw him at the door, I called the guard and told him he better do something to get him out of there, or I’d misbehave.”

The different males began shouting and banging. As the smoke grew thicker, Woods struggled to breathe in his personal cell, he stated. When DeGlandon seen how massive the blaze was, he stated, he referred to as once more for assist.

He was frightened that opening the high-security cell with out back-up may violate company insurance policies he’d simply discovered about throughout his six-week coaching. On the opposite hand, he didn’t need De La Garza to get damage. “I was so concerned about making the right decision,” he stated. “It was damned if I do, damned if I don’t.”

From the neighboring cell, Woods watched as Sgt. Danna Warren lastly arrived, to see if the officers may open the cell door and save De La Garza.

But they didn’t.

“I don’t care if he dies,” Woods remembered listening to the sergeant say. Other prisoners and the guard had related recollections. The sergeant couldn’t be reached for remark. The company stated it couldn’t verify her comment.

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By the time the sergeant left, Woods estimated, greater than half an hour had handed for the reason that blaze started and De La Garza remained trapped within the cell. Even because the flames died, the smoke saved swirling.

Panicked, DeGlandon poured buckets of water by way of the small hole on the backside of De La Garza’s door. “I wish I could have done more,” he stated.

For at the least a decade, the State Fire Marshal’s Office has dinged Texas prisons for a “long history of noncompliance” with state hearth security requirements. Last yr’s annual inspection report discovered greater than 1,600 violations, together with the non-functional hearth alarms, and no clear timeline for fixing them.

The corrections division additionally failed to put in smoke detectors in lots of workers housing areas, had no data of inspection or testing for hearth doorways and had electrical violations in each unit inspected.

Prison officers stated the company plans to ask Texas state lawmakers for the greater than $55 million in funding wanted to sort out the remaining points system-wide.

To specialists, the persevering with lack of ability to fulfill state security requirements signifies a significant downside.

“Fire safety is one of the things that is so fundamental for prison officials,” stated Michele Deitch, a senior lecturer in felony justice at University of Texas at Austin. “You’ve got a trapped population with no ability to get them out quickly or easily.”

By the time DeGlandon referred to as for assist a 3rd time and a lieutenant confirmed up with a crew of officers, Woods estimated that some 45 minutes had handed. The guards opened De La Garza’s door, and smoke billowed out. There was no motion inside.

Officers pulled out his physique. One of his thick rubber bathe sneakers was melted onto his foot, prisoners stated.

“They took him out on a gurney, but we all knew the truth,” Woods stated. “He was dead.”

Afterwards, investigators confirmed as much as ask questions and take statements. Almost a month later, DeGlandon resigned. “I spent a year in Iraq with the Army and everyone came back alive, and I spent two months in prisons and this happened,” he stated.

The sergeant concerned within the incident was fired and the lieutenant resigned, in response to the jail company. Another sergeant was demoted and a captain given six months of probation. None of them might be reached for remark.

Though a November report confirmed the inspector basic’s workplace opened a manslaughter investigation, prosecutors stated no fees have been filed as a result of the dying remains to be being investigated.

The company stated the deaths of De La Garza and Bryant had been each “isolated incidents” and that contractors had been chosen to repair infrastructure issues at each prisons.

Meanwhile, De La Garza’s household has retained Houston-based attorneys Randy Sorrels and Ruth Rivera to look into the incident.

Back at Gib Lewis, the boys who witnessed his dying stated it nonetheless haunts them.

“I still sometimes envision him struggling for his life,” Pedraza stated, “putting his face in that little window, trying to get air.”



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