Most Texas Prisons Don’t Have Air Conditioning, Which Can Be Deadly

Families of prisoners who have died from heat-related illnesses say the prison system’s approach to prevention is inadequate.

By Alain StephensJune 30, 2016 12:18 pm

The weather forecast is hot for the foreseeable future across Texas, but for people living in a 6 by 8 foot concrete room with no air conditioning, this heat is deadly.

More than 70 percent of Texas’s 109 state lockups are not air-conditioned – many of them predate its advent. But there have been some 20 deaths blamed on super-heated air inside those prisons since 1998.

Inmates, their families and prison guards have been fighting for a change. But Brandi Grissom, reporter for the Dallas Morning News, says probably won’t be coming anytime soon.

“There has been no requirement for prisons to have air conditioning,” Grissom says. “The political will hasn’t really been there to spend the kind of money it would take to install air conditioning in these facilities.”

In fact, the prison system hasn’t even estimated the cost of installing air conditioners in the buildings.. Instead, officials say they’re already taking step to ensure prisoners’ safety.

“They’re of course aware of how hot it gets inside these facilities and so they allow inmates access to additional showers, to ice in some cases,” Grissom says. “They encourage them to use fans where they can, they also allow some of the inmates in certain areas to dress in shorts instead of their usual long pants uniforms.”

Prisons also provide training for corrections officers so they can be aware of the signs leading up to heat-related illnesses.

“The prison system contends they’re doing enough and that these measures that they’ve already taken really do help to assuage some of the concerns and prevent deaths and severe illness,” Grissom says. “They aren’t in any rush to change it. They don’t believe change is needed.”

But those who are suing the system say these measures are inadequate.

“Even with drinking additional water and having ice around those aren’t enough to really prevent some of the health and safety concerns that come about with these high temperatures,” Grissom says, “particularly for those who are experiencing mental health conditions or medical conditions that are exacerbated by the hot temperatures.”

The issue is being debated in the courts, but that could take years to resolve. In one case prisoners at the Wallace Pack Unit in Navasota are suing not only about the heat, but about high-levels of arsenic in their water supply. A federal judge has ruled that the water supply be replaced, but has yet to rule on the heat.

“The main thing that the prison system has given inmates to use to relieve themselves of the heat conditions has been found to be severely contaminated,” Grissom says.

Some critics says prisons aren’t supposed to be comfortable, but Grissom says it’s not about that.

“They’re not asking for 65 degree temperatures throughout the prison units,” Grissom says. “What they’re asking for, they say, is for the temperatures to be reasonable. … Their main concern is the health and safety of these inmates.”

Post by Beth Cortez-Neavel.