DIBOLL — A suspended ceiling in the day room of a private prison in Diboll collapsed Saturday, causing critical injuries to one inmate and non-life-threatening injuries to several others.
Emergency personnel and law enforcement officials were dispatched to treat and transport the injured inmates and form a perimeter around the MTC Diboll Correctional Facility at 1604 S. First St. in southwest Diboll.
Diboll Police Sgt. Brandan Lovell said 87 inmates were inside the dayroom when the ceiling collapsed. Several were transported by ambulance to Memorial Medical Center-Lufkin and Woodland Heights Medical Center in Lufkin.
Memorial spokeswoman Yana Ogletree confirmed that six patients were transported there, with one listed as critical. That inmate was transported by helicopter to Memorial Hermann Healthcare System in Houston. Of the five remaining patients, two were admitted and three were in triage, being treated for non-life-threatening injuries. Around 5:37 p.m., Ogletree gave a update that one inmate had been discharged from Memorial and that two more would likely be discharged, as well. Two patients were expected to be admitted to the hospital, with one likely to need surgery, Ogletree said. She said the range of injuries included scrapes and bruises as well as broken bones, contusions and lacerations.
Jennifer Stevens, spokeswoman for Woodland Heights Medical Center, said 13 patients from the collapse were taken to that hospital and that two were admitted. Both were in stable condition, she said.
Lovell and Lufkin Police Chief Gerald Williamson headed up operations outside the gates of the facility and were able to speak to officials inside the prison by handheld radios. Electricity and gas was turned off from inside the facility to the building.
Two medical helicopter ambulances arrived on the scene, but it was not clear whether they transported anyone from the facility.
Officials could not say what caused the 20-foot high ceiling to collapse, but inmate family members were preparing for visitation time when the incident occurred.
Katrina Salutan and her daughter Aaliyah, 3, were visiting an inmate at the facility when the collapse occurred.
“There were all these police cars up here,” Salutan said. “One of the guards walked by. He told me that the ceiling fell down, and I asked him who was hurt and he said, ‘A few people.’ He doesn’t know.”
Visitation was suspended for the day.
As law enforcement officials searched ambulances and fire trucks as they left the scene, the Texas Department of Public Safety and Lufkin Police officers stood guard at the corners of the facility that face the back side and wooded area. Special operations team members and officers from DPS, LPD and Diboll laid a plan to secure the perimeter from the bed of a pickup truck outside the front gate. Local law enforcement officers were not allowed to enter the facility.
“This is a tactical plan. What this does is we know where our personnel are, and if anything happens on this side of the fence we will know where to send our assets,” Williamson said. “This is a first for me at a prison, but I think we have sufficient manpower to handle anything that happens.”
Lovell spoke numerous times with prison officials over the three-hour period, relaying messages to law enforcement. Once they received the all-clear message, officers began breaking down the perimeter.
“They are secure on the inside,” Lovell said. “We were going to pull in the DPS helicopter for aerial support, but we have enough information now to know they are secured inside. I am not sure, but I think there are about 20 injured. It is frustrating, but our main concern as law enforcement is to keep them from getting out. With the responding agencies here now, we feel safe enough to say it is secure.”
Major Ken Montgomery with MTC stepped outside the gates at one point after ambulances and fire trucks had cleared the area to say, “We’re good.”
Williamson said information coming from inside the facility was “very slow.”
“We are in a little bit of an odd situation because this is not our jurisdiction,” Williamson said. “The information has been very slow coming from prison staff. We don’t have any established protocol because we have never handled anything like this.”
Lovell said response time from every area law enforcement agency was almost immediate.
“I think Lufkin Police arrived before I did; even the chief and assistant chief are here,” Lovell said. “As far as what is going on inside, I am having to pull information from there. Even the guards don’t know what’s happening. I do know there is no threat of an escape. I think, given the situation, this has been handled as well as could be without getting any info from the inside.”
MTC is a privately owned facility that houses inmates from Texas Department of Criminal Justice. The facility has a capacity of 518 prisoners and has 136 employees, 97 security guards and 20 non-security personnel, according to the company’s website. The facility was built in 1995.