Surviving Natural Calamities, in Prison


In a short piece for the New Yorker, Daniel A. Gross quotes extensively from a prisoner’s account of what it has been like to experience Harvey from inside a maximum-security cell in a prison in the severely affected region of Texas. Here are the opening paragraphs that provide a context for the account:

Hurricanes Harvey and Irma have prompted mass evacuations in Texas and Florida. But many Americans have been unable to flee, including huge numbers of prison inmates. The two states together are home to a quarter million incarcerated people. Texas has the largest prison population in the country, and Florida has the third-largest.

During Hurricane Harvey, many Texas prisoners were locked in their cells with limited access to water and electricity. After officials decided not to evacuate a federal prison in Beaumont, Texas, hundreds of guards struggled to show up for work. Inmates said that they lost access to medication, and one prisoner told his wife that cells flooded up to calf-height. These reports came six weeks after a federal judge ordered the state to improve prison conditions during the intense summer heat, which has killed twenty-three inmates since 1998.

Sherrard Williams, who is serving a life sentence for being party to a murder when he was seventeen, weathered the storm in a two-person cell in Connally Unit, a maximum-security prison in Kenedy, Texas. He is thirty-eight. His account has been edited and condensed.

The complete article by Gross and the edited copy of Sherrard Williams’ account are available at:


A number of years ago, I wrote a cycle of poems on the geography, history, and daily life of the Caribbean islands. The cycle includes this prose poem, which seems to complement the New Yorker article on Sherrard Williams’ experience:


As the spring of 1902 drifted over Martinique, St-Pierre swam in the heady mix of blooming hibiscus, anthurium and frangipani, flamingo flowers and orchids. This Paris of the Indies lay between lush mountains and crystalline waters shimmering in the tropical sun as if pulsing with the unspoiled promise of the new century.

But to Siparis, in his cell deep beneath the prefecture, one month bled into the next as surely and as distantly as day into night. And so, when the trembling began to run through the ground as thunder stripped of its sound might still move through the air, he was not in the least reassured by the gentleness or the warmth of the breeze.

As weeks passed, some of those moving across the ground above and well beyond Siparis’ cell had noticed that the wild pigs, the snakes, the parrots, and even the butterflies had deserted the slopes of Mont Pelee. And, as word of this spread, plumes of steam did begin, almost reluctantly it seemed, to sputter from the peak. But if most were concerned, almost none were willing to admit alarm.

And so, when the peak blew off, the whole town of thirty thousand was buried in mere minutes under a huge cloud of hot ash that rose and then collapsed, as though the great explosion had been followed by a more terrible implosion.

Through all of that and the long silence of the days that followed, Siparis sat in the corner of his cell, singularly alive in his cubicle of air.

After they discovered him, he was freed because the seeming miracle of his survival seemed to warrant his release. He then disappeared from history into obscurity. All we can say for certain Is that he expired in some considerably less remarkable way than he had survived.



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