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Burned to Death in a Prison Cell

12th May 2022

Burned to Death in a Prison Cell

Burned to Death in a Prison Cell

By KERI BLAKINGER (Reposted by Team Wilson Reports) on 12th May 2022

After years of warnings about broken fire alarms, two men have now died in blazes at Texas prisons.

The last time the other prisoners saw Jacinto De La Garza alive, he had his face pressed against the glass panel of his cell door, his mouth contorted and gasping for breath.

Black smoke curled around his head, they said, and flames leapt from the burning pile of clothes behind him.

The other men shouted and threw trash at the lone guard on duty, trying to goad him into action.

The other men shouted and threw trash at the lone guard on duty, trying to goad him into action.

Minutes passed. The smoke thickened.

A man with medium-toned skin and a short beard wears a white t-shirt and a black baseball cap.

Jacinto De La Garza died in a fire at the Gib Lewis Unit, a Texas state prison near Woodville.

COURTESY OF THE DE LA GARZA FAMILY

“Then, we didn't hear anything,” said Elijah Woods, who lived in the cell next door in a high-security section of the Gib Lewis prison in East Texas. Woods is among a half dozen incarcerated men 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 death as a heart attack. But in a later report, they said that he died of smoke inhalation, trapped in his burning cell. His was one of two such deaths in the Texas prison system in less than six months. In March, Damien Bryant, 31, died in a cell fire at a prison 120 miles away; the corrections department said he may have been suicidal.

At some Texas lockups, cell fires are part of life behind bars. For years, prisoners and staff say, starting them has been one of the ways that men in solitary air their grievances when they can’t get medical attention, warm food or a chance to go outside for recreation.

But if the state had done its part years earlier, the deaths of De La Garza and Bryant might have been prevented.

For more than a decade, the Texas prison system has flouted state fire safety standards by failing to address inspectors’ concerns about inadequate alarm systems. Without sprinklers to douse a blaze or functioning alarms to force guards to respond, prisoners have said, fires in some housing areas have burned for hours.

The Marshall Project first uncovered the safety failings in late 2020, when men reported setting fires to protest deteriorating COVID conditions. A state report issued one month after De La Garza’s death shows that while the agency corrected some violations, it did not come close to fixing the problem, noting that “most of the fire alarm systems aren’t functioning properly.”

At Gib Lewis, the most recent fire safety inspection report — from 2018 — found that there were no sprinklers, the smoke detectors had not been maintained, and there was no power going to the fire alarms in many housing areas.

An agency spokesman confirmed that the fire alarm system there is still not functional in all housing areas. But he disputed that fire-equipment lapses played a role in De La Garza’s death. “Staff failed to follow policy or training,” Robert Hurst wrote in an email. “It was their level of complacency and not an equipment issue that resulted in the serious incident.”

There are a few ways to start a fire in a Texas lockup. Because lighters and matches are banned, prisoners repurpose wires from fans, radios and hot pots to create a heating coil, or they stick razors and graphite pencils into the outlets in their cell walls to spark flames. Then, they hold pieces of paper close by to catch the blaze. When the fires get big enough, they often toss the flaming balls of paper out of their cells to burn in common areas.

“Fires happen all the time,” Maurice Christie, who is also 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 staff shortages and months-long lockdowns during the pandemic, some prisoners used contraband phones to share images of the fires with The Marshall Project.

A small building on the campus of the Gib Lewis Unit stands in front of barbed wire.  A painting showing the words "Gib Lewis Unit", part of the Texas flag with a white star on a blue background, and the seal of Texas are on the side of the building.

At Gib Lewis, the most recent fire safety inspection report — from 2018 — found that there were no sprinklers, the smoke detectors had not been maintained, and there was no power going to the fire alarms in many housing areas.

ELI DURST FOR THE MARSHALL PROJECT

Many states have fire safety systems in all areas housing prisoners. Of the 30 prison agencies that responded to The Marshall Project’s questions, 25 said there were alarms or sprinklers in housing units. Three states indicated that was true in most prisons, and one — Florida — refused to say.

Texas did not respond to questions about whether its fire safety systems cover all housing areas. Several prisoners laughed when asked if they’d ever lived in prison housing with working smoke detectors or sprinklers.

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

When De La Garza went to prison for aggravated assault in 2019, his family visited regularly, relatives said. But then the corrections department moved him further from their home in South Texas, and the pandemic shut down all visitation.