Released from Jail with Nothing, In the Middle of Hurricane Harvey

On Tuesday afternoon, Erick Coonrod walked out into the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey with a pair of sweatpants, tennis shoes, and the T-shirt he had on—that’s it.

“No toothbrush,” he says. “Not a dollar in my pocket.”

In many ways, the 28-year-old found himself in the same position as many victims of the storm in Houston: soaked, displaced, uncertain about what next steps he should take or what steps were even possible. But his circumstances were different. Coonrod was released early from an overwhelmed and understaffed detention facility, into a city reeling from the storm.  

“They let us go early because they couldn’t feed us,” Coonrod says, referring to the Substance Abuse Treatment Facility–Peden program in Harris County. He and a couple dozen others were released from the downtown facility on Tuesday, he says; more detainees got out early on Friday. “They couldn’t house us.”

While he had a friend to crash with, he had no money, no clothes, and most importantly, no medication.

“I was excited to be out, but covered in rain, drenched, I hadn’t showered in three or four days,” he adds. On his first day of freedom, Coonrod saw houses and bridges submerged under water. One was his old apartment building. “It was heartbreaking to see people dealing with things that are going to change their lives forever. But it was also uplifting to see people helping them.”

As the waters of Hurricane Harvey recede, harrowing stories of survival and resilience during the hurricane are beginning to emerge. Coonrod’s account appears to offer a glimpse of how one particularly vulnerable population fared in the storm. After his early release, he found himself face-to-face not only with all the challenges that the rest of Houston was undergoing, but with the many problems that offenders face in reentering society—problems that are often insurmountable under the best of circumstances.

Officials evacuated thousands of inmates from state prisons in southeast Texas after Hurricane Harvey made landfall last Friday. Over the course of the storm, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice evacuated some 6,000 inmates from five different prisons, moving them to undisclosed locations in East Texas.

According to Coonrod, officials at SATF-Peden took a different tack.

So far, it hasn’t been possible to track down anyone in the Harris County government to corroborate or deny his account; an official at the Texas Health & Human Services Commission says that the facility is not licensed by the state agency and could not confirm any details about its fate in the storm. City officials didn’t respond to a request for comment.

But Coonrod describes an ordeal that tracked with Harvey’s appearance in Houston. Over the long weekend, as the storm dumped historic rains on the region and roads became impassable, he and nearly 300 other men were transferred between several facilities before those with shorter sentences were offered the option to go, he says. Coonrod also claims that the men from the substance abuse treatment facility were fed infrequently, denied proper hygiene, harassed by guards, and—critically—not given their medication. “We [typically] get medication three times a day,” Coonrod says. “From Saturday to Monday, we got medication two times [in all].”

Back in July 2016, Coonrod was shot by two Houston Police Department officers after aiming what turned out to be a pellet gun at them, in what he says was an attempt at “suicide by cop.” He was charged with aggravated assault against a public servant and convicted of a felony.

He served 8 months at Harris County Jail before signing for probation; after another 2 months on a waiting list, he transferred to SATF-Peden, a residential or step-down program located near the Harris County Jail in downtown Houston. He was slated to be released late in September.

During his confrontation with the police, the officers shot Coonrod in four places: in his right thigh, left calf, left shoulder, and face. He takes medication to manage chronic pain from those injuries, as well as medicine for depression, anxiety, and PTSD. When he was released on Tuesday, he was given neither medication nor a health card to secure prescriptions, he says, describing the process as haphazard and managed by severely overworked staff.

Under normal circumstances, an offender facing release from SATF-Peden goes through a standard procedure for aftercare. He would be given a 30-day supply of medications. (They are referred to as “clients,” not inmates.) He would have gone through a furlough process that allowed him to check out potential residences or a halfway house, depending on needs. He would have been able to retrieve his possessions, which for Coonrod included clothing and pictures of his two kids. “All that was foregone,” he says.

“You might as well release them to a death sentence, given the conditions out there,” says Nancy G. La Vigne, director of the Justice Policy Center at the Urban Institute. La Vigne has written a number of reports on the challenges that prisoners face in returning to society, including multiple reports specific to reentry in Houston.

As the storm grew more severe, the situation at SATF-Peden worsened, and staff and resources were unable to reach the facility (which is located steps from the Buffalo Bayou riverfront). On Saturday, water filled the building’s basement and was climbing up the first floor, so administrators moved the offenders to a gymnasium at Harris County Jail, which is across the street. (The Harris County website lists 283 beds at SATF-Peden.) They were held there until Sunday night, then moved to the Young Men About Change (YMAC) facility, another residential program for moderate-risk offenders, this one staffed by an increasingly exhausted skeleton crew.

Coonrod describes skirmishes with inmates and guards. Meals consisted of peanut butter and jelly or bologna sandwiches, served at odd hours and over long intervals. At the jail, nearly 300 SATF-Peden clients shared a single toilet and sink. He is careful to note that some staffers took heroic pains to look after their charges, working without sleep; he personally casts the blame on the Gateway Foundation, a Chicago-based nonprofit organization that operates both SATF-Peden and YMAC in Houston, for failing to plan for the storm. (The Gateway Foundation did not respond to a request for comment.)

On Tuesday, amid a growing sense of danger, Coonrod claims that SATF-Peden administrators gave some of the inmates a choice. Those with less than 30 days left on their stays, who could also reach someone by telephone, would be released early. People with less than 60 days left on their stays were granted one-week furloughs to go stay with family members. At least 20 people secured early release, according to Coonrod, and more left when the rains finally lifted this week.

“They told us we couldn’t take anything with us,” Coonrod says. “I have sentimental things, legal documents I need, pictures of my kids. The only pair of shoes I have that are decent, I left them there.”

He was able to retrieve his medication from SATF-Peden on Thursday. He can’t contact a probation officer for at least another week, he says he was told, so he is unsure about when his aftercare formally begins. He is now staying in the Galleria area in uptown Houston with a friend, from whom he borrowed a set of clothes—since he walked out the door without any. He says that while he figures out where he will work, he aims to volunteer with cleanup and whatever else he can.

Coonrod, like millions of other residents, now faces the difficult task of rebuilding. He was prepared to do that anyway. “I don’t think of myself as too deserving,” he says. “I would’ve liked to have left with the resources they would have given me when I completed the program, but given the situation, I’m just happy to be alive. There was a lot of people who lost a lot more than I did.”