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"I Wasn't a Prisoner"

Why the Fate of the Galveston County Prisoners Should Matter to Us

By Dusk Peterson

Tucked inconspiciously into thousands of media reports about Hurricane Ike on September 12 came a handful of media reports about over one thousand men and women who were forcibly prevented from leaving Galveston Island, Texas, during a mandatory evacuation from a hurricane that was expected to completely flood the island.

Galveston County Daily News reported it this way:

"Sheriff's Office spokesman Maj. Ray Tuttoilmondo, citing security concerns, declined to discuss plans for the jail, which holds roughly 1,300 prisoners. 'The inmates are safe, sound, and the jail is high and dry,' Tuttoilmondo said."

A relative of one of the prisoners said that she received a phone call from her son on the afternoon of September 12, who said, "All of us are here cramped into this little room on the first floor. The flood waters are rising and we're not going to evacuate."

The previous day, the National Hurricane Center had forecasted its fears that anyone left on the island would face "certain death." Although this prediction proved not to be true, forecasters correctly predicted that the entire island would end up submerged in water.

As one commentator pointed out, there is a telling parallel here with the events of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, when thousands of inmates at Orleans Parish Prison were trapped in floodwaters after authorities declined to evacuate them. According to the ACLU, the Louisiana prisoners' plight was not reported on by the media, nor by the authorities, who described the events at the prison as a "riot" by the prisoners. The prisoners' plight was learned of later when prisoners began to speak up about what had happened.

Similarly, prisoners were not evacuated from a prison in Beaumont, Texas, after mandatory evacuation orders were issued for the county before the arrival of Hurricane Rita in 2005. Prison officials assured the press that all went well for the prisoners, following the hurricane. Not until a class-action suit was filed on behalf of the prisoners did outsiders hear tales of inmates suffering for weeks afterwards.

Maj. Tuttoilmondo, at the Galveston County sheriff's office, made a revealing comment at one point, when explaining to a reporter why he declined to speak about possible evacuation plans: "We did this [evacuated the prisoners] during Rita and no one knew until it was absolutely done."

"No one knew." And indeed, this time round, virtually nobody knew what was happening at the jail; nearly all of the media was too busy taking pictures of happy-go-lucky residents cavorting on the stormy beaches of Galveston Island to report that some not-so-happy residents desperately wanted to escape from danger but were not permitted to.

Next year's issues of True Tales will be devoted to prison tales. Prison stories have long been a staple in gay erotica, since imprisonment is a place where homosexuality is likely to show up among men who have never practiced it before. Nearly every gay porn site on the Web has stories or images set in prisons.

Yet at other times, do readers and viewers of gay erotica think about prisoners?

A commentator at the On the Gay Horizon blog asked on September 12:

"How could I relate this particular experience of basic survival to being gay? And, believe me, survival is exactly what's on everyone's mind here on this side of the gulf coast – surviving until morning and then putting the pieces of our lives back together. But, what is it that's different about all of this for me or for any other member of the Houston GLBT community? What are we doing or feeling that is different from all of the non-gay Houstonians?

"Absolutely nothing."

Although there is a certain amount of truth to this, the situation at Galveston County Jail shows that ultimately this statement is false. Although many societal advances have been made in the past decades, it remains the case that the average gay man is more likely to be imprisoned than the average straight men, simply by virtue of his sexual orientation. If a gay man engages in BDSM or fetish activities, the possibility that he will be arrested rises sharply in certain jurisdictions. Even erotica readers who have never practiced what they read about can be vulnerable to arrest in certain locations.

And once in prison, both men and women are more likely to be abused, by their fellow prisoners and by the authorities who have care over them.

The reason that Galveston's sheriff was able to get away with placing over one thousand prisoners in harm's way is because few people cared. Members of the media, and their viewers and readers, cared about what was happening to the cavorting Galveston residents, but few people bothered to enquire about what was happening to the island's prisoners. Meanwhile, the only reports issued by the gay media about Hurricane Ike were articles in The Advocate and GayWired.com about evacuees taking refuge in a hotel that appeared in the gay soap opera Dante's Cove.

Nearly all of us ignore what happens in prisons and jails unless someone we care about is imprisoned. Indeed, it's unlikely that many people took notice after a seventeen-year-old boy killed himself in Galveston County Jail on August 4.

Pastor Martin Niemöller's off-quoted thoughts on such matters have become a trite saying, but they are worth remembering: "In Germany, they came first for the Communists, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Communist; and then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a trade unionist; and then they came for the Jews, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Jew; and then they came for me . . . and by that time there was no one left to speak up."

As of the morning of September 13, a spokewoman at the office of the governor of Texas was reporting that the governor's office had no information on the fate of the prisoners at Galveston County Jail.


Despite evactuation order, 1,000 remain in Galveston jail. By Harvey Rice. [Houston Chronicle]

Galveston prisoners still in jail. By Mike Ward. [Austin-American Statesmen]

Sheriff's office: Prisoners safe at county jail. By Chris Paschenko. [Galveston County Daily News]

Galveston Under Water. By David C. Doolittle. [Austin-American Statesman]

Unevacuated Galveston Prisoners Bring to Mind One of Katrina's Worst Horrors. By John Tarleton. [The Indypendent]

Hubris: Galveston Sheriff leaves inmates, deputies, in hurricane's path. By Scott Henson, with a follow-up comment by a relative of one of the prisoners. [Grits for Breakfast]

Differences. [On the Gay Horizon blog]

Family of dead inmate sues. By Mark Collette. [Galveston County Daily News]

Police probe officers' role in dead teen's arrest. By Sara Foley. [Galveston County Daily News]

Abandoned & Abused: Orleans Parish Prisoners in the Wake of Hurricane Katrina. [ACLU]

A Prison Cover-Up During Hurricane Rita. By Chris Vogel. [Houston Press]


September 17 update on the prisoners.

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About the Author


Hurricanes Gustav and Ike issue.

Copyright © 2008 Dusk Peterson. All rights reserved.
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