Texas inmates fight for air conditioning in prisons

FILE - Prison (Courtesy: Nexstar)
FILE - Prison (Courtesy: Nexstar)

AUSTIN (NEXSTAR) — The scorching Texas sun is hard to escape during the summer months. Temperatures reach as high as 100 degrees Fahrenheit in some parts of the state, and added humidity levels can make it feel even hotter.

Many Texans find solace indoors, where air-conditioning makes the heat more bearable. However, for the majority of Texas inmates residing in prisons across the state, escaping the heat is not an option.

According to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ), only 30 of the 109 prison units are fully air conditioned. TDCJ spokesman Jason Clark said that all medical, psychiatric, and geriatric units are equipped with air conditioning, and each of the 109 units include at least some parts that are air conditioned.

“Simply because you are incarcerated doesn’t mean you lose your rights to be free from excessive punishment,” human rights lawyer Jim Harrington said. “Not only have an inordinate number of people died from the heat, but you have people that have had very serious consequences from that heat.”

Between 2007 and 2015, prison advocates said at least 14 inmates have died in Texas from heat-related causes. Harrington said the uncomfortable conditions are not only concerning for the inmates but also the TDCJ staff.

“In Texas it is a no-brainer that these buildings are going to become extraordinarily hot in the summer and don’t have ventilation,” Harrington said. “What happens is you have a pretty dramatic increase of psychotic episodes because the heat exacerbates the medication that the inmates are taking, which means they are more likely to act out, which means the guards have to do more in terms of discipline or rendering medical care.”

A lawsuit was filed in 2014 by the Texas Civil Rights Project (TCRP) and the University of Texas School of Law Civil Rights clinic on behalf of the 150,000 inmates in Texas. The suit, which is currently still pending, focuses on the conditions at a facility in Navasota, Texas. Scott Medlock, one of the TCRP lawyers representing the prisoners in the lawsuit, said keeping human beings in the current conditions is “completely unacceptable”.

“My clients are left sweating,” Medlock said, “leaving their bed and their mattress drenched in sweat every morning and not sleeping at night because it is so hot and it stays hot all night indoors.”

Texas statute mandates that county jails in Texas keep their temperatures between 65 and 85 degrees. Medlock said the state system, however, has no such requirement. Medlock is asking for prisons to drop the temperature to 88 degrees.

“We’re not talking about comfortable prisons, we’re talking about bringing the temperature indoors under 90 degrees,” Medlock said. “The science says that around 90 degrees Fahrenheit is where the risk starts to increase to human health.”

“The well-being of staff and offenders is a top priority for the agency and we remain committed to making sure that both are safe during the extreme heat,” TDCJ Spokesman Jason Clark said in a statement. “TDCJ takes precautions to help reduce heat – related illnesses such as providing water and ice to staff and offenders in work and housing areas, restricting offender activity during the hottest parts of the day, and training staff to identify those with heat related illnesses and refer them to medical staff for treatment.”

Clark would not comment on the pending litigation, but said many of the TDCJ facilities were built before the time that air conditioning was commonly installed. Clark also said “retrofitting facilities with air conditioning would be extremely expensive.”

Harrington said the solutions that TDCJ are providing are simply “band-aid methods” and do not resolve the long term problems.

“When you talk about people whose health is exacerbated because of age, you know their medical conditions deteriorate, showers don’t help that,” Harrington said. “Because you are basically living in that heat all the time, day in and day out, and you really have to tend to the needs of these people. That’s what the constitution requires. That’s what should be required of the TDCJ.”

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