No Air In Texas Prison System
The lack of air conditioning in Texas prisons has been a contentious issue for years. Texas, known for its scorching summer temperatures, has seen numerous lawsuits and advocacy efforts pushing for the installation of air conditioning in its prison facilities.
There have been reports of heat-related deaths and illnesses among inmates in Texas prisons. These incidents have sparked outrage and calls for change from human rights advocates, inmates’ families, and some lawmakers.
Over the years, several lawsuits have been filed against the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) regarding the lack of air conditioning. Some of these lawsuits have resulted in settlements or court orders mandating the installation of air conditioning in certain facilities or units.
One of the arguments against installing air conditioning in prisons is the cost. Critics argue that the funds could be better spent on other pressing needs within the prison system. However, advocates counter that the cost of litigation and potential settlements could exceed the cost of installing and maintaining air conditioning.
Many view the lack of air conditioning in prisons as a human rights issue. They argue that subjecting inmates to extreme heat is cruel and unusual punishment, which is prohibited by the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
In some cases, the TDCJ has implemented measures to mitigate the effects of heat, such as providing fans, increasing water access, and allowing more frequent showers. However, these measures are often seen as insufficient by those advocating for air conditioning.
The issue is divisive among the public. Some believe that prisoners should not be provided with comforts like air conditioning, while others argue that basic human rights should be upheld regardless of one’s incarcerated status.
Some facilities have seen the installation of air conditioning units, while others are still awaiting action.
Texas Legislature 2023: Budget and Prison Air Conditioning
The Texas Legislature had an extra $32.7 billion available for the state’s next two-year budget. However, they decided not to allocate any of this money directly for cooling the dangerously hot prisons.
Prisoner advocates were deeply disappointed with this decision. Amite Dominick, the president of Texas Prisons Community Advocates, expressed that the Senate’s decision felt like an endorsement of torturing incarcerated Texas citizens. The advocates felt at a loss, unsure of what further actions they could take to address the situation.
The House had proposed spending $225.9 million to cool 16 prison facilities by 2025. This would focus on transfer facilities (which hold newly sentenced prisoners) and those with large special needs populations. A second phase would have used $319.3 million to air condition another 30 facilities by 2027, focusing on larger prisons built in the 1980s and 1990s.
While lawmakers did not explicitly allocate funds for cooling prisons, the budget language suggests that the newly added maintenance funds could potentially be used for this purpose. In the final budget proposal, an additional $85.7 million was added for “deferred maintenance.” This money falls under the same budget category from which the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) draws funds to install air conditioning.
Amanda Hernandez, a TDCJ spokesperson, did not confirm if the newly added funds would be used exclusively for air conditioning. However, she mentioned that these funds, along with the previously set aside $87 million for repairs and improvements, would be used for various projects. These include roof repairs, security fencing, lighting, fire alarms, wastewater improvements, and adding more air-conditioned beds within the prison system.
The cost estimates for cooling prisons vary widely. Depending on the facility, it’s estimated that the cost would range between $620,000 to $48 million per prison.
Advocates argue that the conditions inside most Texas prisons during summer are dangerous and potentially deadly. The lack of legislative action on this issue means that inmates and human rights advocates might have to seek court intervention to address the situation.
State of Texas Prisons: Heat Conditions
David Segovia, an inmate at the Ferguson Unit in East Texas, described the unbearable heat he experienced, especially living on the highest tier of a cellblock. The metal bed in his cell was too hot to touch, forcing him to wet the floor or sheets with hot water from his sink and lie on the concrete. He expressed fears about not surviving the extreme conditions.
After settling a years-long court battle, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) spent about $4 million and enacted new policies to mitigate the heat. These policies included regularly providing ice water and cups to prisoners, allowing them to cool off in air-conditioned areas upon request, offering extra-cold showers when possible, and providing personal fans. The TDCJ reported that these policies were effective, with a decrease in heat-related illnesses among prisoners and staff.
The Ferguson Unit, known for its extreme heat, lacks air conditioning in all prisoner housing areas, including solitary confinement. Inmates and their supporters have claimed that the heat mitigation policies are not consistently followed and that many heat-related illnesses go unreported.
When asked about the enforcement of its heat policies, TDCJ spokesperson Amanda Hernandez mentioned the prisoner grievance system, where inmates can file written complaints to staff. Investigations are conducted to ensure that temperature mitigation measures are being followed.
Due to the extreme heat and perceived lack of action, prisoners have resorted to protests, including screaming, banging on bars, setting fires, and flooding their cells to get the attention of officers.
TDCJ Executive Director Bryan Collier mentioned that out of approximately 133,000 beds for prisoners in state prisons, about 41,000 (less than a third) are in air-conditioned areas. In the current year, air conditioning is being installed to cover nearly 1,000 beds at several units. The following year, about 5,800 more beds will be cooled at intake prisons. The projects for the next year are estimated to cost $12 million, funded through the TDCJ’s existing budget.
Segovia, who previously lived in an air-conditioned cell at the Michael Unit, described his current cell at the Ferguson Unit as a “living hell.” The cell, located at the top of a large building, has three solid concrete walls and a barred door facing a wall of windows. The afternoon sun heats the cell intensely, making it feel like an oven.
Heatwave In Texas Prisons
Texas prisons reached a crisis point, with temperatures regularly soaring above 115°F (46°C), threatening the physical and mental health of inmates. In some instances, temperatures inside the cells were reported to reach as high as 149°F (65°C).
An inmate from the Wainwright unit, which has air conditioning, described the harrowing conditions. He mentioned, “We are trapped in here and it’s driving people insane.”
An inmate from Ferguson, one of the oldest prisons without cooling, described his cell as an “oven”. He revealed that the hot sun beams into his cell all day, and attempts to block its rays result in disciplinary actions. To cope, he pours sink water over himself and sleeps on a wet bedsheet on the floor.
The extreme heat has evident effects on inmate behavior. Gonzalez mentioned increased anger, frustration, and mental fatigue. He observed inmates fighting due to agitation caused by the unbearable conditions.
Texas is one of at least 13 states without universal prison air conditioning. About 70% of its units have partial or no cooling systems. Despite the dire conditions, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) insists there hasn’t been a heat-related death since 2012.
Amite Dominick, president of Texas Prisons Community Advocates (TPCA), estimates that over 100,000 inmates are subjected to dangerously hot cells. She criticized the TDCJ’s data, stating that people are dying due to the heat, but the agency refuses to acknowledge it.
The heat also affects correction officers who wear thick uniforms and stab-proof Kevlar vests. Jeff Ormsby, executive director of the Texas correctional officers’ union, mentioned that many officers quit during the summer months due to the heat, leading to staff shortages and increased tensions inside prisons.
Despite the pressing need, the Texas state legislature has repeatedly failed to pass bills that would fund air conditioning in prisons. In the most recent session, the Texas house passed a bill proposing over half a billion dollars for air conditioning, but the senate opposed it.
Carl Sherman, a Democratic state representative, highlighted the prevailing mindset that inmates shouldn’t be made comfortable. However, he emphasized the need for humane conditions, stating, “When inmates are begging and pleading for their lives in the searing heat, that is a problem.”
Air Conditioning Legislation: Texas Prisons Air Conditioning Bill
A North Texas lawmaker, Carl O. Sherman, D-DeSoto, is advocating for air conditioning in state prisons. This issue has been debated in the state legislature for several sessions. Sherman is one of the authors of House Bill 1708, which mandates that internal temperatures in state prisons remain between 65 and 85 degrees.
The House passed the bill with 124 yes votes to 24 no votes. However, five North Texans Republicans voted against it. The bill’s fate in the Senate remains uncertain, especially since a similar bill was passed in the House during the 2021 legislative session but did not progress further.
Sherman was joined by a group of prison reform advocates at the steps of the Capitol in Austin. He emphasized the importance of the bill not just for inmates but also for the 20,000 correctional officers who ensure public safety. Richard Miles, an exoneree who was wrongfully convicted and spent 15 years in prison, shared his experiences of witnessing inmates suffering from the heat.
Dr. Amite Dominick, president of Texas Prisons Community Advocates, highlighted the inhumane conditions in prisons for both inmates and staff. She mentioned that these conditions have led to serious injuries and even deaths. Dominick stated, “We are literally baking people — human beings — in the state of Texas.”
The Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) has not commented on the pending legislation.
Sherman addressed legislators who oppose the bill by emphasizing the financial implications of treating prisoners for heat-related injuries. He argued that these costs could be eliminated with the installation of permanent air conditioning in housing units, urging legislators to “do the right thing.”
Calls For Action: Desperation In Uncooled Texas Prisons
Dozens of prisoners’ relatives and former inmates gathered at the state Capitol, expressing their desperation and pleading for state officials to install air conditioning in Texas prisons. A grieving mother, whose 36-year-old son died unexpectedly in an uncooled prison, exclaimed, “They’re cooking our babies alive!”
As Texas faced a seemingly unending heatwave, prison rights advocates and several lawmakers demanded that the governor call an immediate special legislative session to address the cooling of prisons. Despite previous legislative measures failing, the current heat crisis and concerns for inmate safety prompted renewed efforts.
Tona Southards, whose son Jon Anthony Southards died at the Estelle Unit in Huntsville on June 28, shared her grief. On that day, the heat index outside the prison reached 116 degrees, according to TDCJ heat logs. Southards wore her son’s TDCJ ID tag and “prison whites” during her address, emphasizing the state’s role in his death.
More than two-thirds of Texas’ 100 prisons lack air conditioning in most living areas. Every summer, thousands of officers and tens of thousands of prisoners endure the sweltering heat inside concrete and steel buildings without proper ventilation. The indoor temperatures often surpass the already high outdoor readings.
Carl Sherman, a key advocate for the air conditioning bill, highlighted the difference between growing up in a house without AC and living in a prison cell without ventilation. He emphasized the challenges faced by inmates, especially those in metal or brick buildings on higher floors, who cannot escape the heat.
The article describes a palpable sense of urgency among those who have experienced or witnessed the fear of enduring a Texas summer in prison. Their emotional expressions during speeches underscored the dire need for immediate action.
Sherman concluded his address by emphasizing the increasing temperatures and the urgency of the situation. He expressed his reluctance to meet more grieving mothers who lost their children due to the state’s inaction.
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