Summer in many prisons can be unbearable, as very few have any temperature control or much ventilation, and staff do little to nothing to provide relief. Prisoners suffer heat-related illnesses, and sometimes death, every year. Temperatures inside a cell can be over 110 degrees, at which point a fan does nothing but blow the hot air around. See Boiling Behind Bars, an article from The Intercept earlier this year, about the conditions in Texas prisons.
We received this today from a prisoner in Arizona:
Times on the yard are hard and its getting real. The heat waves are literally killing us as we don’t have any AC, only swamp coolers. The temperature we have been forced to endure all month has been a consistent 97° with 77% humidity inside all day into the night all due to the swamp coolers. This is absolutely insane, and when we have recreation we get locked on the rec field for hours at a time, very limited water supply and when that runs out we have to argue and cause trouble just to get the jugs refilled. A plan that everyone refuses to lockdown is in talks right now. When we engage could be soon. The danger we are being forced to endure with these temperatures is outstanding. I can only imagine with climates changing how bad it will be in the years to come.
Texas prisons are not cool in the summertime. The first year I spent in a Texas prison was in 2015 and I began my stay in the late fall at the Holliday unit in Huntsville. In November that part of Texas is typically cold and rainy. It can warm up into the 80s on an occasional autumn day. By April, when it is still cool in the rest of the US, the daily temperature in Texas and the south can reach 90 degrees Fahrenheit. By June, its sweltering.
I remember back in 2011 when Austin suffered a record heat wave. The temperature met or exceeded 100 degrees for more than 100 consecutive days. I spent as much time indoors that year as I could. When I did go outdoors it was to quickly enter an automobile accessorized with cold A/C. That same year 10 Texas prisoners died from heat stroke.
In 2015 when the heat of Texas strove toward its August peak, I had no such luxury. I was stuck, along with the majority of Texas’ inmates, without air conditioning in the sweltering heat.
To mitigate heat, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice installs fans in dorms and common areas. An inmate living on a unit having individual cells or dorms with single bunk living areas can buy a fan from the commissary for $20.00. Indigents are right out of luck, though the Texas CURE has provided fans to prisoners for many years. On the Holliday unit, a transfer facility with common dorms, inmates weren’t allowed to purchase personal fans because there were not enough outlets to supply the required power.
The Holliday unit is one of many intake facilities in Texas. Similarly constructed units are Middleton, in Abilene, Garza East and Garza West, both in Beeville, and Gurney in Palestine. The state built these units as part of a rapid expansion of the Texas prison system during Ann Richards’ administration.
Exploiting the cloud cover of “urgency,” prisons were built poorly and at an exorbitant cost. Some 12,000 “emergency beds” were thrown together in 180 days at the height of the hysteria in late 1994. Those particular prison units have a life expectancy of about twenty years, as opposed to the fifty-to-seventy-year life expectancy of the standard TDCJ prison; they are nothing more than minimum-security warehouses, and yet they carry the price tag of maximum-security prisons. Construction of the $10.3 million Ama-rillo meat-packing plant was also deemed for some strange reason an “emergency” back in 1994, a decision that cost the taxpayers probably an extra $1 million even though the facility was built partly using free inmate labor and even though it still lacks essential (and expensive) items like grease traps and bar screens.
These intake facilities still exist, more even than I have listed here, some 10 years beyond the time that TDCJ officials scheduled them for replacement. The corruption in the system was so rampant that lobbyists at that time figured they had an unlimited supply of taxpayer money. They believed they’d easily be able to convince the legislature to provide funds for shiny new prisons. Since then, there’s been some backlash nationwide over mass incarceration that hasn’t quite reached Texas. The inmate population back in 1996 was 129,000. Today that number is 160,000.
TDCJ built the units with steel girders, siding and roofs rather than the traditional brick and mortar walls and asphalt roofing found in more permanent units. As a consequence, the temperature in the dorms can exceed as 130 degrees in the summer. It’s a bit like living in an outbuilding or an Easy Bake oven. I showered two or three times a day just to get my shorts and t-shirt wet. This had limited benefit due to the nature of Huntsville weather namely, the constant high humidity which thwarted the cooling effects of evaporation.
If I were younger it probably would have been less stressful. I survived obviously but many Texas inmates haven’t and the average age of prison inmates increases each year. I saw men processed at Holliday who were eighty and older. The geriatrics had a difficult time with the heat.
TDCJ has been running from the A/C issue for years and in 2018 lost a federal law suit filed by inmates on the Wallace Pack unit. In the suit, which cost them an estimated $7 million, administrators claimed that adding A/C to the unit would cost between $22 million and $120 million. These figures were apparently only for the benefit of the jury (who don’t appear to have been fooled). After losing the law suit, they’ve revised those numbers down to about $4 million per unit. They could almost complete the upgrade of two units for the amount they spent fighting the law suit. With a total operating budget of $3.3 billion, (pdf) they could, at $4 million a unit, add A/C for all 155 units and barely make a dent in the total budget. Texas prisons are not cool for inmates but pigs have it made.
One of the early efforts TDCJ made to reduce the heat stroke problem was to make an educational video about dehydration and heat stroke. I remember my annoyance as they rolled these videos out. As with everything in prison watching the dehydration/heat stroke video was mandatory. Just another 20 minutes out of my day but it was the principle. Did they need to show it every 90 days? The video taught us how to drink water, how to gauge the color of our own pee and to consider when it might be necessary to sit in a respite area. These respite areas were places on the unit where A/C was installed. The hallway near the warden’s office, the infirmary or the education building.
The guards who work at TDCJ did not seriously consider inmate’s request for respite. Because they have been conditioned to treat every inmate request as though it is a ploy to achieve an ultimate escape, they would initially push back on these requests. When the Pack unit lawsuit started winding its way toward trial, administrators fearing more lawsuits encouraged the officers to take heat-related requests seriously. This had limited success.
For instance, keeping the coolers supplied with ice and water added responsibility to already full plates. The staff might pay closer attention to the issue if units were at full capacity. But with some units staffed below 50%, keeping coolers full is a low priority. At one unit I was on, the staff rate was 46% of optimum and we’d spend hours without cold water. Officers did not supply inmates tasked with refilling the coolers with proper gloves and equipment that would prevent cross contamination. After I watched the coolers filled once or twice, I couldn’t drink the water from them except in extreme circumstances. AI has received feedback on the Texas heat from some of our inside voices and published it here.
It’s nearly summer. In Texas especially, the inmates will have a difficult time staying cool. This discomfort up to and including death, will be a risk all the way past August. And TDCJ is even now playing games over the issue of A/C. Please consider contacting the Texas CURE and helping an inmate get a fan. Better yet, adopt a Texas inmate, especially if you’re in Texas. Texas prisons are not cool but they do have A/C in the visitation areas.
Relief may be in sight for hundreds of heat-sensitive inmates at the Pack Unit northwest of Houston.
State officials on Thursday are set to roll out their plan for providing cool living quarters for medically vulnerable inmates at the geriatric facility after a federal judge found the swampy indoor conditions amounted to “cruel and unusual punishment.”
While U.S. District Judge Keith Ellison has not ordered the state to install air conditioning, his emergency injunction on July 19 called for cooled beds for 475 inmates who take medication or have diabetes, high blood pressure and other conditions that make it hard for their bodies to fight the heat.
The ruling marked a turning point in the federal civil rights lawsuit, which has drawn national attention to the rights of people who lack the authority to adjust the thermostat and the freedom to leave the premises.
Witnesses testified that inmates and guards alike had fainted from indoor temperatures that sometimes surpass 100 degrees. One inmate testified about heat-induced vomiting and another recalled a headache that felt like an ice pick to the brain.
Ellison ruled that officials at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice obstructed remedies and showed “deliberate indifference” to inmate suffering. He gave them until Aug. 8 to implement the plan, a draft of which is expected to be submitted to the court Thursday.
About 80 percent of Texas prison inmates are assigned to living units without air conditioning, even during heat waves, according to Jason Clark, a spokesman for TDCJ.
Since 1977, county jails across Texas have required that indoor temperature be kept between 65 and 85 degrees. All but seven of the 122 federal facilities run by the Bureau of Prisons offer air conditioning, an official said. Even the federal detention center at Guantanamo Bay, which drew attention for the treatment of high-profile international prisoners, has cooling units.
TDCJ has not yet responded to a request by the Houston Chronicle for the total number of heat-sensitive inmates in state custody. However, prisoners’ rights advocates estimate that thousands of people are under official “heat protection” designation at Texas facilities that lack air conditioning.
Jennifer Erschabek, executive director of Texas Inmate Families Association, said she hopes state officials will consider the fate of its most vulnerable charges when implementing changes at the Pack Unit.
“I can easily say there are thousands of people in the system who are on heart medication, diabetes medication, or have HIV, Hepatitis C or psychotropic medications that make them heat sensitive in these dire conditions,” said Erschabek, whose group conducts an informal heat survey each year among inmates families.
“People need to be housed in a place where it’s not a life and death situation for them in the summer,” she said.
Erschabek said her organization has had small victories in addressing inmate grievances related to heat waves. Her group reached out to wardens at six TDCJ units where guards were reportedly unresponsive to inmates afflicted by extreme heat or failed to provide sufficient water, ice or cold showers. In every instance, she said, the wardens and regional directors took action.
Melissa Brown, who runs a group called Adopt an Inmate, said she hopes TDCJ will extend heat protection fixes at the Pack Unit to all inmates.
“The whole ‘heat-restricted’ thing is absurd because inside the cells it can be over 120 degrees, with 90 percent humidity,” she said. “There is no inmate that isn’t medically compromised in those conditions.”
Brown said prison transfer units, such as Holliday, Gurney, Garza East and Garza West, have metal roofs and no windows, so on hot days the floor fans just blow hot air around. She has heard reports of inmates smashing windows at another unit to get air flow during the hot months.
The 2014 lawsuit filed in Houston was brought by six inmates at the Pack Unit after summer heat waves in 2011 and 2012 caused multiple inmates across the state to die from heat stroke. Since 1998, 23 inmates have died of hyperthermia, or heat stroke, in Texas prisons.
Ellison noted in his recent ruling that heat deaths — in the free world or otherwise — are commonly under reported, since other medical problems contribute.
The Pack lawsuit is among 10 lawsuits filed in Ellison’s court by attorneys from Edwards Law in Austin and the Texas Civil Rights Project. Eight families of inmates who died of heatstroke have brought wrongful death suits and another inmate who survived a heat stroke has also sued TDCJ.
In the Pack case, Ellison ruled that the inmates were likely to win at trial because the conditions they’ve endured violate the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.
In addition to the remedies for heat-sensitive inmates, Ellison ordered the prison to improve access to respite areas, develop a heat-wave policy and other measures.
State officials have said they plan to appeal the ruling to the Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. In the meantime, they must comply with the judge’s injunction. Ellison’s order remains in effect for 90 days, carrying through the hottest months.
Local prison rights advocates say the prison heat problem should be treated as a humanitarian concern.
“It’s a human rights issue because these people do not have an option to go somewhere or do anything to enable them to cool off,” Erschabek said. “They wet the concrete to lay down on cool concrete and put a fan on themselves but it’s just biding time until the weather cools down. It’s just horrendous.”
Following the spate of heat deaths in 2011 and 2012, the Human Rights Clinic at University of Texas Law School spent two years interviewing TDCJ inmates about the heat.
Professor Ariel Dulitsky, a human rights lawyer who runs the clinic, said researchers concluded the state’s treatment amounts to cruelty and torture, in violation of a United Nations Convention.
“All these people are under the absolute control of Texas, of the state, and everything that happens to them is viewed through the actions or omissions of the state,” he said. “At the end of the day, many of these situations amount to torture.”
He said it is a matter his students brought to the attention of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in October 2014, but TDCJ officials declined an invitation to respond to the law students’ allegations.
Dulitsky said the students concluded that Texas had violated international law.
“Due to the amount of suffering inflicted on many inmates, Texas is implicated in torturing inmates,” he said. “If Texas does not remedy the situation it will implicate the U.S., not just Texas.”
The letter below is from a Texas prisoner. TDCJ does not pay any of their prisoners for work, so the only way they can purchase items from commissary is if someone on the outside is able to put money on their books. TDCJ provides minimal hygiene items to indigent inmates (who have no money on their books): soap, toilet paper, and toothpaste, and for women, 1 box of pads and 6 tampons per month. No shampoo, no lotion, no deodorant (and remember Texas does not provide any air conditioning for the inmates).
It is commonly against the rules in jails and prisons for inmates to help each other by sharing commissary items or food. Each item of their property must be labeled with their name and ID number (like in elementary school). Any item found in possession of an inmate that is not labeled with that inmate’s name and number is considered contraband, and will be confiscated. This includes every piece of paper, stamp, envelope, book, hygiene, and food item. Even “special” items such as radios and typewriters (in facilities that have those items available for purchase), cannot be given to another prisoner upon his or her release, they must take it with them. The irony of this practice is that it encourages theft and hostility.
I have a concern about the required work we inmates do in TDCJ that goes without pay or incentives of any kind (no “work time” or “good time” is applied to our sentence, as in most other states). I feel that the Texas prison system should adopt the same plan as other states, and start paying their inmates by the hour, or by the day, which would allow their inmates to become independant, to some degree, reducing the number of inmates who are indigent. This would teach the inmates the value of a dollar earned doing hard labor, and allow them to purchase needed items from commissary for the work they do.
Texas does not believe in rehabilitation, because if they did, they would have adopted this idea for their prisons. The Texas prison system believes in capital punishment only. And they do not want to help their inmates. They believe in allowing their inmates to suffer, they do not want to help us and they do not want anybody else to help us, inside or outside. For example: If an inmate who is indigent who never makes commissary nor gets visits, and he is not able to buy or purchase himself a Speed Stick deodorant, and some other inmate sees this man’s suffering condition and buys this man a deodorant, the inmate that helps out the poor, suffering inmate will get in trouble for helping the poor, suffering out. Now I don’t think that is right at all.
We have been asking our adoptees in TDCJ (Texas Department of Criminal Justice) how they are holding up under the Texas heat with no air conditioning. (Fortunately, this has not been a record-setting year for summer heat in Texas.) Here are some of their replies: