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A building engulfed in flames
Stock photo by Ricardo Gomez Angel on Unsplash

The tower clock at the Huntsville Unit stopped ticking at 3:23.

I had woken up at 2:39 a.m. to a guard yelling: “Wake up and get out!”

I looked outside my cell and noticed that the emergency fire doors were open. The floor below me was quickly filling with smoke.

The smoke emanated from the attic above a central hallway that divides our building in two. The other wing of the building had smoke too. Our entire building evacuated in an orderly fashion, without panic.

I had no idea the recreation yard could hold all of us — over 650 people. Many of us could feel the heat from the fire. We saw flames inside the east wing of the building. The west wing of the building, where my cell was located, seemed OK.

I looked around at my fellow inmates, all holding various possessions and in various states of dress. We couldn’t believe our building was on fire. I only snagged my ID card on the way out. Because it was August in Texas, a few had their portable fans; some came out with their tablets. Many people had nothing. Some were shirtless. Some were barefoot.

Outside, the guards carried out multiple roster counts to ensure no one was missing.

The headquarters of the Texas prison system is located right across the street from Huntsville, which was built in 1848 by paid laborers, prisoners and enslaved people. It is nicknamed Walls Unit for its brick walls. It is also home to the state’s death chamber.

Some higher-ranking prison officials live next door in state-owned homes. On the night of the fire, they promptly arrived on the scene. I saw one put both hands on their head, taking it all in. Soon they started making calls.

The fire grew more intense. I saw smoke — black, gray, white — billow out exponentially. Red and blue flames licked the night sky, growing bigger and bigger. The yard was quiet. All we could do was watch. All we could hear was the crackling of the fire.

Soon, flames were coming through the roof over the west wing. First, the A line roof ignited. Then it jumped to the C line roof right next to the A line. After that I saw the A line roof collapse. Later I learned the C line one collapsed too.

At that point a guard yelled with orders to head to various gyms on the prison grounds.

Our evacuated building was divided in half by the central hallway, but each wing was further divided in half lengthwise. Residents of my wing of the building, called the D line, all ended up in the same gym, some 500 feet from the burning building. I don’t think all 180 of us had ever been in there together — a lot of people on that line were usually at school or work. It was interesting to see people I had never spoken with but lived among. Before too long, we saw emergency lights flashing outside — the fire fighters.

Most of us were in that gym from roughly 3:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. the following night.We had very little to do. Some people used weights to exercise. Others got hold of a basketball and played around. I tried but failed to avoid getting pooped on by the pigeons (there must be a hole in the roof; every time I’m in the gym I see lots of bird excrement). There wasn’t a lot of talking. Everyone was in their own minds.

I could not believe it, but the executive director of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, Bryan Collier, ended up in the gym with us for a short period. He urged us to be patient, saying it was going to be a long process. I saw about 20 other employees from headquarters pass through the gym as well. You could tell they were higher-ups because of their designer clothes. When I was free, I used to shop at Nordstrom, so I could instantly recognize a $200 button-down shirt.

At 11 a.m., sack lunches arrived from Wynne Unit, a nearby prison. They included two sandwiches: a chicken patty with cheese, and peanut butter with strawberry jelly. The chicken was cooked but only slightly warm.

At 1 p.m. we were fed again: fried egg sandwiches.

In the gym we had two coolers that were continuously filled with ice and water.

We had dinner around 6 p.m.: hamburgers with cheese, and PB&Js.

Near 9 p.m. I was reassigned to another gym. A bunch of prisoner shuffling was happening, since people needed places to sleep. In this gym, I was given a mattress and two brand-new bedsheets. There are five cages of varying sizes set up around the gym. I was assigned to a small one, about the size of a 250-square-foot studio apartment, with 13 other people. Our mattresses didn’t touch, but we had to be careful not to bump into each other when we got up to use the restroom.

We were told that those of us in this particular gym would likely stay in Huntsville. The people assigned to the other gym would likely be sent to other prisons.

The next day, a Saturday, breakfast was the exact same thing as dinner: hamburgers with cheese. Shortly after breakfast, the staff handed us each a roll of toilet paper and a shaving razor.

Another administrator arrived that morning with other employees from headquarters. They said 600 fans had been ordered — there is no air conditioning at Huntsville — along with hygiene packs and bottled water.

Just after 10 a.m., I was reassigned again — to a cell in another building.

On Sunday morning, we finally got to shower. On the way to the showers, prisoners known as “inmate life coaches” handed out toothpaste, a toothbrush, deodorant and a bar of Irish Spring soap.

Before showering, we approached the clothes window as normal and requested our items. It felt wonderful to finally shower.

At 3 p.m. we went to the dining hall. Seven Securus Technologies employees issued replacement tablets, chargers and microphone headphones to everyone who had lost them in the fire. We were surprised how quickly that happened. Lots of people waited a month to get their tablet when the devices first arrived at Huntsville. Some of us joked that they made haste because the prison needed roof money. (The prison earns commissions on fees from purchases of music, games and movies, and the use of messaging services.)

At 4 p.m. I went to my new cell and from there could see into the gym. There were about 80 people left.

Monday was a regular day. I got my brand new loaner fan and a hygiene pack. Rec started up again. School was in session. People went to work.

A few days later, I returned to the burned building to retrieve my possessions. We had received frequent updates about the state of the building, so I knew my things would be OK. As soon as I walked inside, I got goosebumps. It was so still, and relatively unscathed save for some soot on the walls. Other people were there, going to their cells, but I felt like I was alone in the building.

My line seemed more or less untouched. That was a relief, as some people had stuff stolen or damaged. My things were in good shape, most of them packed in my locker box already. I had two other bags stuffed with belongings, and filled a third. In the breezeway I put my locker box and bags on a cart. I signed the clipboard that stated I had all my things and that they were not damaged.

The property officer had a separate clipboard for damages. There had been flooding problems on the first floor (both from firefighter hoses and from a surprise rain the day before the fire as well as a few days after). I saw one person hand over their radio. The property officer tipped it over and water poured out. I heard many people say they were most concerned about family photos, which were irreplaceable. Many guys here have been in prison for over 20 years. Family members have died. Some simply have no contact with their relatives.

One man, who has been incarcerated since 1994, lost all of his photos. He said he returned to his cell to inspect the damage, and the stuff in his locker was drenched by four inches of water. He tried to wipe the water off a picture of his daughter and ended up wiping off her face. All of his photos disintegrated like that: pictures of childhood and missed family reunions and long-gone relatives.

Another man lost letters he’d accumulated over 30 years of incarceration.

Things have been different since the fire. I don’t feel like myself. I think it’s from lack of sunlight. D line had an entire wall of windows. Here on H line there is no window for the sun to shine through. I sit in the dark all day. Compared to D line, some people have remarked that H line is like a homeless encampment. There’s trash everywhere, and guys are sprawled out on the floor and on benches, some clearly high on drugs.

It’s not just me. The atmosphere has been different everywhere. The prison seemingly emptied out. I counted 14-some busloads of people leaving Huntsville since the fire broke out.

At church recently the volunteer didn’t show up, so an inmate preached. He noted, with sadness in his voice, that many of us don’t think or speak of those people who were just days earlier.

The good news is that no person was physically harmed by the fire. But I learned we had lost Smokey the cat. When we were all in the rec yard, he got scared and went inside. When his remains were found he was all bloated like a basketball.

After church we stepped out into smoke. There was a wildfire nearby. By Tuesday, over 4,000 acres had burned. I looked up at the watchtower clock. At the time of this writing, it was still 3:23.

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

Cesar Hernandez is a writer incarcerated in Texas.