Texas inmates feel the heat this summer in fight for air conditioning

Wiring on a fence at a Texas state prison. (Nexstar File Photo)
Wiring on a fence at a Texas state prison. (Nexstar File Photo)

AUSTIN (Nexstar) — As Celestina Sanchez knows first-hand, Texas summers are brutal in state prison.

Sanchez frequently visits her husband, who is serving a life sentence at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice’s Darrington Unit in Rosharon, Texas.

“We just became friends and then started dating and fell in love,” she laughed as she recalled meeting Oscar in the late 1990s.

Oscar Sanchez, Jr. has been in prison for half of his 36 years alive. “Charged with life as a first time offender at the age of 18 years old for a ricocheted bullet that took the life of somebody,” Mrs. Sanchez said.

One thing the Sanchezes talked about during a recent visit was the heat. “This summer is extremely hot, especially over there in Darrington,” Sanchez said about her husband’s situation. “It’s one of the older units, and it’s really humid over there.”

The Texas Civil Rights Project said temperatures easily hit triple digits inside the walls of the state facilities, with the air feeling like upwards of 120 degrees Fahrenheit.

According to TDCJ, 28 facilities out of 107 “have air conditioning in all offender housing areas.”

TDCJ spokesperson Robert Hurst said medical, psychiatric and geriatric units were all air conditioned. “All units have some areas that are air conditioned,” Hurst said in a statement.

“Since 1998, nearly two dozen deaths have occurred in TDCJ,” Zenen Jaimes, with TCRP said.

TCRP is part of a lawsuit, filed in 2014, about the issue of heat-related illness. That case went to trial on Monday, Jaimes said.

TDCJ released a video last week outlining guidelines for extreme heat and offering reminders for how to handle heat-related situations with inmates or staff. “Many of TDCJ’s facilities were built before the time that air conditioning was commonly installed,” Hurst said.

Inmate advocates said temporary fixes were not enough.

“Even though they committed a crime, they don’t deserve to be tortured,” Lina Trevino said. Trevino co-founded Inmate Lives Matter, and is the state chair for Texas. “This is torture — for them to be cooked in the evening.”

TDCJ said, “Retrofitting facilities with air conditioning would be extremely expensive.”

“We’re not asking for it to be a country club, we’re not asking for it to be a vacation, but for it to be something that’s not cruel and unusual punishment,” Trevino added.

Sanchez, also an “ex-con,” said she knows people should be held accountable for their actions, but does not believe the punishment should include heat in the triple-digits.

“Nothing can get done unless we speak out,” Sanchez explained. “Because, the inmates don’t have a voice.”

To watch the TDCJ heat-related illness video, click here.

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