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The limits of bootstrapping in Texas

Who is at fault for the misery in Texas, and who should take responsibility for its alleviation?

This is the debate as extreme winter weather and infrastructure failures in the state have left at least two dozen people dead and millions without heat, water, and/or power. And it’s not an unreasonable debate to have, with one glaring exception: lock-up. As is often the case in crises, misery in Texas is particularly concentrated in carceral facilities. But we know exactly who is responsible for the conditions in Texas jails and prisons. It is the state, and the conditions are cruel.

Before we come to this exception, though, let’s turn to the rule — or rather, the comparative lack thereof. Texas is unique on the American mainland for having its own power grid covering most of the state. Called the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), it’s a deliberate isolation to avoid some federal regulations. Many, like my colleague Ryan Cooper, have pointed to this choice to skirt regulation in favor of underinvestment, poor maintenance, and higher profits as the source of Texans’ present distress.

Other fingers are pointed elsewhere. ERCOT CEO Bill Magness argued the system simply needs more winterization. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) blamed windmills. The editorial board of The Wall Street Journal tilted at windmills, too, even as its news team reported renewable energy sources weren’t the primary problem. Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) implicitly accused federal regulators (though, in fairness, he also said the “government is supposed to [protect against] … freakish events that can … cost people their lives”).

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And perhaps inevitably, since it’s Texas, at least one voice piped up for personal responsibility. Tim Boyd, the mayor of the small town of Colorado City, published a lengthy Facebook diatribe against “lazy” “people looking for a damn handout” from “a socialist government.” “Sink or swim it’s your choice!” Boyd wrote. “The City and County, along with power providers or any other service owes you NOTHING!” He advised those without electricity to “step up and come up with a game plan” for single-digit temperatures. Pull yourself up by your bootstraps, sonny — the exercise will keep you warm!

Boyd soon resigned amid broad condemnation, which is interesting in that it’s not difficult to imagine his general theme being well-received in more comfortable circumstances. Moreover, it can hardly be said Texans haven’t already stepped up, remarkably so given the limitations of a built environment that is simply not made for deep cold: They’re boiling snow for drinking water, taking in neighbors, manning warming centers in churches and libraries, burning baby toys and fences to keep warm.

And that brings me back to the exception, because you can’t do those things while incarcerated. You can’t have a prepper game plan in a cell. You likely can’t even meaningfully participate in the responsibility debate — for more regulation or less, more green energy or less, more localized control or less, more government-run disaster relief or less — because information and voting access is so limited behind bars. You can’t take your fate into your own hands personally or politically. That’s the very point of imprisonment as punishment: To impose responsibility, ironically, we take away responsibility, and we accord it to the state instead.

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And the state has utterly failed. The details trickling out of Texas’ carceral facilities are horrifying. In one county jail, per reports collected by the Texas Jail Project, “the water is coming out brown.” In another, pipes froze, yet inmates were given no bottled water to drink. In Galveston County, on the Gulf Coast, inmates reportedly have been defacating in buckets and peeing in cups. The Texas Criminal Justice Coalition has reports of a facility with snow indoors. The Fort Worth Star-Telegram reports a federal medical prison housing about 1,000 women, many of whom are sick, is mostly unheated. “We have to go outside to get our meals,” said one inmate there, “and it’s snow and icy everywhere, and we’re freezing.” In Harris County, which includes Houston, prisoners told HuffPost they were given no dinner on Monday and no extra blankets. “Meanwhile,” HuffPost reported Thursday, “the nine toilets in the facility — which are used by dozens of people — have been filled up to the brim with urine and faeces.” There is not enough water pressure to flush.

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This is why lock-up is an exception to the reasonableness of debating responsibility in and for this crisis. Inmates can’t pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. (Bootstraps are probably contraband.) In an emergency of this scale, those who can’t flee are uniquely vulnerable, and lack of care for that vulnerability is enormously revealing.

There are undoubtedly policy remedies for some of what Texas is experiencing this week, and the average Texan may meet future winters with a fuller pantry and a kerosene heater to guard against the vicissitudes of life. That’s all to the good, and the policy debate will be complex, huge, and necessary.

But for prisons and jails there’s nothing to debate. When we lock people up, we shoulder the responsibility of providing for their basic needs: heat, food, working toilets. Our Constitution demands it, and so does elemental decency, not least for jail inmates who have not been convicted, are still presumed innocent, and may only be detained because they can’t afford cash bail.

Inhumane carceral conditions aren’t new in Texas, and at a certain point — a point passed this week, if not well before — those conditions become a sort of extrajudicial punishment, a sentence beyond the sentence, lawlessness meted on lawlessness. The next time Texas has an extra-cold winter, its inmates should not be punished twice.