A heat wave covering central Texas is reigniting concerns over the welfare of prisoners incarcerated without climate control.
The Texas Tribune reports that some seventy-five percent of prisons within the state don’t have air conditioning in housing areas. While hard time isn’t meant to be easy, extreme weather can endanger the well-being of thousands. Thermometers in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area are recording temperatures of close to 110 degrees Fahrenheit, hearkening back to a 2010 disaster.
In the span of two months, “at least” 10 inmates died from heat stroke. Another four within correctional facilities suffered from heat-related injuries, including several guards.
Until recently, Texas has faced stiff legal opposition to its climate control policies and lack thereof. Litigation has cost the state close to $7 million.
Temporary measures to keep prisoners cool have run $1 million. But any permanent fix, says the Texas Tribune, is dependent on the state legislature’s willingness to compromise.
Estimates for a long-term solution have varied. Experts say installing air conditioning in Texas prisons could cost $20 million or more.
The Texas Tribune spoke to Michele Deitch, a senior lecturer at the University of Texas-Austin and expert in prison conditions. Deitch calls the fees paid out in litigation a waste.
“The easiest, smartest and most humane thing to do is to simply move ahead with making the necessary changes in the facilities rather than spending their time trying to fight a battle,” says Deitch.
Back in 2014, Texas defended its prisons against accusations of inhumane conditions. State Attorney General Ken Paxton said last summer that existing precautions against heat-related injury were sufficient.
The state’s old safeguards included fans and providing inmates with ice water.
Despite its defense, Texas agreed to keep temperatures in a Pack prison at or below 88 degrees Fahrenheit. The agreement was ‘unexpected,’ reports the Tribune, surprising advocates and the presiding judge, who said he “never dreamt we’d get the Pack Unit air-conditioned.”
Republican state. Rep. James White said he thinks Texas should charge ahead and continue to cool prisons beyond Pack. Even if cost is a concern, White notes that ensuring the safety of detainees is among the state’s core correctional responsibilities.
“This has always been an issue,” said White, “it’s just now that we’ve gotten a lawsuit and some other data points that have got us thinking about this more thoughtfully and in a different way.”
One woman, who’s godson is locked up in the Hutchins Unit, said nobody would approve of treating even animals the way Texas treats its inmates.
“I can’t believe he’s holding himself together as well as he is, but he’s wilting. He’s covered in heat rash,” Mindy Thibeaux told the Dallas Morning News on Monday. “There’s no hope of cooling down. If anyone did that to an animal, they’d be in prison.
“He’s basically being cooked alive.”
Officials from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice have so far stuck by their practices, although they’re weary of further lawsuits.
“We’re taking every possible precaution for the health and well-being of our offenders and staff,” department spokesman Jeremy Desel told the Dallas News. Steps to protect employees and inmates have purportedly included restrictions on working outside, the creation of air-conditioned “respite areas” and better access to hygienic facilities and weather-appropriate meals.