Hundreds of Inmates Evacuated After Large Blaze Breaks Out at Historic Texas Prison

Jana J. Pruet
By Jana J. Pruet
August 26, 2023US News
Hundreds of Inmates Evacuated After Large Blaze Breaks Out at Historic Texas Prison
Fire crews battle a blaze at a prison in Huntsville, Texas on Aug. 25, 2023. (KTRK-TV via AP)

An early morning fire erupted on Friday at a Texas state prison, forcing officials to evacuate about 650 inmates in the historic facility in Huntsville, according to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ).

The Huntsville Fire Department responded to the large blaze that broke out at about 2:30 a.m. at the 174-year-old Huntsville Unit, TDCJ spokesperson Amanda Hernandez told The Epoch Times in an email.

The fire affected the attic and third floor of the administration building and the attic of a unit that houses inmates, according to Ms. Hernandez.

“All inmates, staff, and first responders are safe,” she said.

The Huntsville Unit is also known as the Walls Unit for the 15-foot brick wall that surrounds the prison yard. It is the oldest prison in Texas and is located near downtown Huntsville, about 70 miles north of Houston.

More than 300 inmates were relocated when the fire started, but as it spread, more inmates had to be moved to another part of the prison.

“Approximately 650 inmates were evacuated to a secure location.” Ms. Hernandez said, adding that about 400 of the inmates will be relocated to other facilities across the state.

Huntsville Fire Chief Greg Mathis told local news stations that crews arrived quickly at the scene, where they found heavy smoke coming from a cell block.

Huntsville Fire Department requested mutual aid from several fire departments, including Dodge Fire Department, Prairie View Volunteer Fire Department, Riverside, Montgomery County, Walker County Emergency Service District 1, and New Waverly Fire Department.

Huntsville Police Department was also on the scene to assist.

Mr. Mathis told reporters during a press briefing that even “after the main body of fire was knocked down,” firefighters were continuing to put out hot spots, or smaller fires, in the administration building.

“This is going to be a pretty extensive mop-up operation,” Mr. Mathis said.

The extent of the damage to the facility is not immediately known.

Ms. Hernandez said the cause of the fire has not been determined at this point.

“We will have a complete investigation to determine [the cause],” she said. “We will complete an investigation in conjunction with the Huntsville Fire Department.”

Mr. Mathis also told reporters that the cause was unknown, and the State Fire Marshal’s Office had been notified about the incident.

TDCJ has canceled visitation for the weekend. Relocated inmates who were scheduled for release over the next week will still be released, but their release will take place at another facility.

Concerns Across the Texas Prison System

Huntsville is the headquarters of the Texas prison system, which houses about 130,000 inmates. The system has come under scrutiny over the lack of air-conditioning in about 70 percent of its 100 units and concerns over fire prevention.

In 2021, a report by the State Fire Marshal showed that most of the units’ fire alarm systems weren’t functioning properly. Inspectors found nearly 1,700 violations and also noted that steam kettles were often used as fryers.

There were no records of testing fire doors, standpipe systems, or dampers.

Texas lawmakers approved millions of additional dollars for repairs and improvements to the prison system. The extra funding will be available in September when the new budget cycle starts.

The Huntsville Unit is also where condemned inmates are executed, but the death chamber was not affected by the fire, Ms. Hernandez said. The fire is not expected to affect the execution schedule. The next execution is set for Oct. 10, when Jedidiah Murphy is set to be put to death for the killing of a 79-year-old woman in 2000.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

From The Epoch Times

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