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To Cool Texas Prisons, Let’s Turn Up the Political Heat (Editorial)

Prison is supposed to be a punishment, but the heat in Texas’ prisons this summer is brutal and life-threatening. A potential death penalty that no judge ever ordered. 

Roughly two-thirds of our state’s prisons don’t have air conditioning in most of the living and working areas. Fans push around hot air, and the few air-conditioned spaces, such as chapels and barbershops, provide only a little relief. 

So prisoners get creative. They soak their T-shirts. Sleep on the floor. Or even flood their cells by clogging toilets. That last one is a sign of desperation: it’ll get you in trouble. Some days, the only relief is a chance to stand outside in the shade. But when outside temperatures stay stuck above 100 and inside temperatures climb even higher, not much helps. 

One prisoner told us that even with a small fan in his cell, he feels like the heat encases him. He spends his days tossing water across the floor to cool the concrete. And then lying on it, to cool himself. Trips to the prison chapel offer limited respite. Prisoners are supposed to be offered access to these cooled spaces, but they say some guards make it difficult to go to them.

And that’s par for the course, say prison advocates: Even existing rules aren’t being followed. “We’re hearing that they’re just not doing what they’re supposed to be doing,” said Savannah Elrige, who founded the advocacy group Be Frank 4 Justice and serves as board chair for the Texas Inmate Families Association.

Elridge told us she makes a point to regularly see her brother, who is incarcerated.

“I drive five hours and 45 minutes for visitation,” she said, knowing the air-conditioned visiting rooms are a rare comfort for him. On a recent visit, she could see the heat rash all over his body.

That kind of heat takes a toll. It’s difficult to prove for certain that heat caused any single death but one study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association estimated that roughly 13 percent of Texas prison deaths during warm summer months could be attributable to the higher temperatures. And another study found that extreme heat corresponded to an increase in suicide-watch incidents in prisons next door in Louisiana.

In a recent analysis of prison death reports, the Texas Tribune found that at least 12 prisoners living in uncooled prisons have died from heart failure or cardiac arrest since June when the mercury rose above 100. Twenty-nine additional deaths are still waiting on autopsy results. And because the department of corrections isn’t required to report a prisoner’s death for 30 days, the count may rise higher. It’s possible drugs also played a role in some of these deaths but we know heat plays its part too. 

That should unnerve even the hardest-hearted penny pincher in the Legislature. Should wrongful death lawsuits arise, they could cost the state money. And the prisons’ extreme heat is only making the state’s prison-guard shortage worse. 

And in fact, the last couple of legislative sessions have offered signs that the hang-’em-high politics at the statehouse are shifting. 

State Sen. John Whitmire, who leads the criminal justice committee and is a Houston mayoral candidate, said his thinking has evolved over the years. The Democrat once insisted there were two reasons Texas prisons weren’t air-conditioned: We don’t want to. And we couldn’t afford it if we did. But his stance has moderated somewhat. 

“The prisons are nothing but a concrete box and steel,” he told us, citing not just dangerous temperatures in the summer but the winter as well. “I’m sensitive to it. But I do have people in Acres Homes that don’t have air conditioning, too.”

We agree that those people in Acres Homes should be a priority too: The state can help them with cooling centers or programs that defray the costs of air-conditioning installation and repair. But those in prison, whether there for a violent crime or not, are in the care of the state, and the state has a responsibility to provide basic living conditions.

This legislative session, a House proposal would’ve added $545 million for air conditioning and required that indoor temperature limits match what’s allowed in county jails: between 65 and 85 degrees.

That seemed only fair, given that in 2022, Gov. Greg Abbott raided the Texas Department of Criminal Justice to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars, in part to fund his Operation Lone Star whims.

Instead, in a year when Texas was flush with cash, the state budget allocated only about $85 million for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice to spend how it sees fit. Amanda Hernandez, director of communications with the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, said the money will help add roughly 11,000 to 12,000 cool beds. 

Texas will then have 53,000, maybe 54,000, cool beds — not nearly enough for our roughly 145,000 prisoners.

Advocates urge the governor to call a special session. “Right, right now, people are dying,” said Dr. Amite Dominick, founder and president of Texas Prisons Community Advocates and co-author of the JAMA study. “They’re suffering.”

The situation is so concerning that some Congressional representatives have called for outside investigations and more oversight. In a letter to their Republican colleagues, 14 Democrats on the House oversight committee urged them to join in a “serious bipartisan investigation of the conditions of prisons and jails across the country.” They cited the extreme heat in Texas prisons.

Community members have a chance to voice their concerns at the upcoming Texas Board of Criminal Justice meeting this Friday in Galveston. It’s one of just two chances each year to offer public comment, and much of it is likely to be about dangerous heat.

Change is possible. If we want to cool Texas prisons, it’s time to turn up the heat on politicians.

Source : Hoston Chronicle