ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Homes, businesses and hospitals in Texas have been evacuated because of flooding from Harvey, and so have prisons. A mass movement of inmates in the middle of a natural disaster is a challenge. So to better understand what that has involved, we called up Bryan Collier. He is the executive director of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, which oversees the state's prisons.
BRYAN COLLIER: Just to kind of give you a snapshot, we have five prison units that we've evacuated, and that encompasses just a little under 6,000 offenders. We also evacuated two halfway houses and two treatment centers that added another - just under a thousand offenders to the total - so overall, just under 7,000 offenders that we have moved due to the storm.
SHAPIRO: How challenging is it to move this number of people in the middle of a natural disaster?
COLLIER: Very difficult. In some cases, some locations were easy to get into and get out of and evacuate offenders. We had those resources ready, staged nearby. However, as the storm moved and as rivers rose in some areas, it was very difficult to get staff in there. So we had, you know, buses deployed. We had what we call scout vehicles. Those are employees in a high-profile vehicle who are running roadways to see if we can get through. Sometimes what would typically take you, you know, an hour and a half to get from one location to another may have taken seven to eight hours...
COLLIER: ...To get from - between those points.
SHAPIRO: We often hear stories of prison overcrowding. Did you have space for these people?
COLLIER: So in a situation like this, it's not just in a typical housing area. We'll have offenders in gymnasiums, chapels and other areas of the prison that normally don't house offenders where we can house them temporarily.
SHAPIRO: Is that a safety risk? I mean are these low-security prisoners? Or you know, are there other concerns about housing people in places you ordinarily would not house prisoners?
COLLIER: It's a combination of the type of offender that we move. Offenders that would be very high-security need and/or high-risk would be placed in a cell. But for most of the offenders, we can manage them in a - what I would call a dormitory-style setting like in a gymnasium. We allow them to try to make phone calls to their family, let them know where they've been moved, let them - let their families know that they're OK.
And the offenders - probably more than most people would realize, they're going through a significant event as well. They understand the circumstances. And for the most part, we don't really have issues with them under these type situations.
SHAPIRO: How long do you think it will be until people can move back into the prisons? Are they inhabitable?
COLLIER: We have at least three units that we think probably likely have water in them. We're making assessments of those today. It will be a few weeks before we're able to probably occupy fully where we were. We have some other units evacuated that right now are still watching the water levels of the river that's close. So we'll work alternative locations and then deal with that as we do.
SHAPIRO: I understand you've also taken some unusual steps to address the needs of parolees who might be dislocated. Tell us what's happened there.
COLLIER: What we do - I mean we've done this for several years. But offenders that are on parole supervision that are in areas prone to hurricane impact - we require every year for those that are sex offenders and/or what we would consider high-risk offenders to provide essentially their evacuation plan to us. We verify that that would be an acceptable evacuation plan. When something like this happens, then we know where they're going to go, and we can pick up their supervision.
If they don't have an evacuation plan, we keep those offenders together either at a halfway house or located on one of our prison facilities temporarily until they're able to get back. We do that to try to keep sex offenders and high-risk parolees from being in a shelter environment in a community shelter.
SHAPIRO: Your staff must be working incredibly long hours even while I'm sure some of their homes have flooded out.
COLLIER: Yes, sir.
SHAPIRO: How is everyone holding up?
COLLIER: Incredibly. It makes you proud and emotional frankly because we have some really dedicated employees who have not gone home in several days. And when they do go home, there may not be a home there, or there will be a significantly damaged home. And then we have others who can't get out of the area there in to come into work.
So we're working as best we can with high-profile vehicles to assist those and then try to get those staff who have been on a unit or in a situation for a long time - we're trying to get relief staff to them. It kind of comes back to the routing issue that we talked about earlier. It's trying to find clean routes to get in so you can get something to those units in those other locations.
SHAPIRO: Bryan Collier, executive director of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, which oversees the state's prisons, thank you for your time.
COLLIER: Thank you. Thank you very much.
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