Without A/C, temperatures inside Texas prisons regularly soar to 110 degrees

Temps in at least one unit have topped 149 degrees, reflecting conditions incarcerated people call a “living hell,” according to the study

By Dalia Faheid
Fort Worth Star-Telegram

FORT WORTH, Texas - A lack of air conditioning at most Texas Department of Criminal Justice facilities has incarcerated individuals suffering dangerous consequences from the triple-digit heat.

Since 1998, the department has recorded at least 23 heat-related deaths. And in 2018 alone, at least 79 incarcerated people and prison staff reported heat-related illnesses from January to October, according to a report released July 21 by Texas A&M’s Hazard Reduction and Recovery Center and the advocacy group Texas Prisons Community Advocates.

“It’s brutal. They’re dying. They’re passing out. They’re absolutely miserable right now,” said Amite Dominick, president of TPCA and one of the authors of the report. “This is the worst summer I’ve seen.”

Texas is one of at least 13 states without universal air conditioning in state prisons, according to the research. Temperatures inside units have regularly reached 110 degrees and in at least one unit have topped 149 degrees, conditions incarcerated people call a “living hell,” according to the study.

TDCJ operates 100 facilities, with 70 units having partial to no air conditioning, according to Texas Prisons Community Advocates. Only 30% of state prisons and jails are fully air-conditioned, putting inmates at-risk of health emergencies.

Dying from heat is a common fear among inmates, the report found through surveys from 309 incarcerated individuals collected between June 2018 and December 2020. One person wrote that they dealt with heat rash every summer, while others said they experienced dizziness, nausea and difficulty breathing. Another person fainted four times in their cell, but received no medical attention, the research found.

“This situation has been going on for decades in Texas, so it’s not new, it’s just that this summer is one of those particularly hot summers like 2011, where we saw a lot of deaths,” Dominick said.

Aside from heat-related illnesses, heat degrades a person’s health over time, researchers said. A person who dies of a heart attack, for example, may not have died from heat exposure directly, but consistent exposure to excessive heat. Heat, making it more difficult for infected individuals to fight off the virus, could have also contributed to COVID-19 deaths in prisons. Others are vulnerable to heat because they have underlying health conditions, or they take medication that makes them especially sensitive to the heat.

“Some of them aren’t taking their medication during the summer, because they’re afraid that’ll kill them,” Dominick said.

Are incarcerated individuals entitled to air conditioning?

The Texas Commission on Jail Standards requires that temperatures be between 65 and 85 degrees in all county jails. Those same standards should be applied to all state-run prisons and jails, says Texas Prisons Community Advocates.

Advocates argue that the lack of air conditioning is in violation of the U.S. Constitution’s 8th Amendment against cruel and unusual punishment, and the 14th Amendment guaranteeing equal protection to citizens.

“Our prisoners in Texas are technically still slaves, according to the 13th Amendment, they have no rights,” Dominick said.

When an incarcerated person does need medical attention because of the heat, they often are denied care or receive inadequate care, she added.

“There were times during COVID that if you wanted to see a doctor, let’s say you needed cancer treatment, you have some routine chronic illnesses, you got rubber stamped. It’s not COVID related, you’re not going to medical. And the medical situation in the prisons is subpar,” Dominick said. “Even getting to medical, and then the communication between TDCJ and UTMB, it is my number one complaint for my family members after the heat.”

By contrast, in federal prison and jails, inmates are entitled to air conditioning. Bureau of Prisons institutions are accredited by the American Correctional Association, whose standards require livable temperatures that are not too hot or cold. ACA standards require that “temperatures in indoor living and work areas are appropriate to the summer and winter comfort zones” and “temperature should be capable of being mechanically raised or lowered to an acceptable comfort level.” Also, according to BOP it has specific procedures in place for heat-related illnesses.

“Heat stroke is treated as a medical emergency and appropriate care is rendered to the inmate patients,” Federal Bureau of Prisons spokesperson Randilee Giamusso told the Star-Telegram. “There are nursing and paramedic protocols to treat heat-related illness, to include instructions for vital sign monitoring, interventions such as IV fluids and body cooling, as well as indications of when to transfer to a higher level of care.”

Do heat mitigation procedures help?

“We take numerous precautions to lessen the effects of hot temperatures for those incarcerated within our facilities. These efforts work. In 2022, there have been seven inmates who required medical care beyond first aid for heat related injuries and none were fatal,” Amanda Hernandez, communications director at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, told the Star-Telegram. “Much like those Texans who do not have access to air conditioning in their homes, the department uses an array of measures to keep inmates safe. Everyone has access to ice and water. Fans are strategically placed in facilities to move the air. Inmates have access to a fan and they can access air conditioned respite areas when needed.”

Researchers say that heat mitigation procedures employed by Texas prisons, like water, ice, showers, fans and cooled common areas are not enough to help prevent heat-related illnesses for all 120,000 inmates. Dominick says these measures are like putting a Band-Aid on a gaping wound, a wound that’s resulted in community advocates receiving five reports of heat-related death so far this year.

“This is a violation of a person’s rights. This is inhumane,” Dominick said. “And no amount of any mitigating factors are going to be sufficient.”

Even if it was the only solution, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice does not ensure that every individual has access to these resources, the report said. Logistically, with facilities down over 7,000 officers, there isn’t enough personnel working to facilitate the resources. And with COVID-19 restrictions, inmates reported that access to water and ice was sometimes unavailable. Dominick says she’s also gotten reports of unsanitary water, water pipes bursting and people who said they couldn’t shower for a week.

“The agency recognizes that some inmates are potentially at a heightened risk of heat-related illnesses because of their age, health conditions, or medications. These individuals are identified through an automated heat sensitivity score that uses information from the inmate’s electronic health record. Individuals who have a heat sensitivity score receive priority placement in a housing area that is air-conditioned,” Hernandez said.

That score was developed as a result of a lawsuit over the lack of air conditioning at a Southeast Texas prison. The lawsuit, settled in 2018, cost the state $7.2 million. Since then, the heat sensitivity scores have had an adverse impact, Dominick says, as those assigned them are singled out.

“They’re losing out on things like visitation, they’re losing out on phone calls, they’re losing out on programs, and all those things impact their ability to parole,” she said. “They’re writing and they’re saying, ‘Well, how do I get rid of this score?’”

Will Texas prisons install more air conditioning units?

“Each summer we continue to refine and improve our practices,” Hernandez said. “What has not changed is our commitment to do all that we can to keep staff and inmates safe.”

The only efficient solution to the unbearable heat, experts say, is to add air conditioning to the units and bring the temperatures down. TDCJ has said it would cost $1 billion to install air conditioning across all units, according to the report, with an additional $140 million needed annually for utilities and maintenance.

“Over the past several years, the agency has worked to increase the number of cooled beds available,” Hernandez said.

Since 2018, TDCJ has added air conditioning to 3,598 beds, Hernandez says. The prison system plans to add 5,861 cooled beds in the coming year.

Dominick says that won’t make a difference on a large scale. Currently, there are 65,628 beds without air conditioning and 33,952 with. Forty-nine facilities have partial air conditioning, 30 have full air conditioning, and 21 have none.

“If they’ve added 3,000 [cooled] beds, but they house 120,000 people, that’s a drop in the bucket,” she said. “They’re dying now. They’re suffering now.”

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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