Prisons without complete air conditioning pose danger to inmates, staff | Local Govt. and Politics

Christopher De Los Santos

State prison units, including in Marlin and Gatesville, without substantial air conditioning expose incarcerated people to risk of heat-related illnesses, advocates say.

The Texas Department of Criminal Justice, which runs the state’s prisons, has mitigation measures and respite plans in place. But the combination of an acute staffing crisis in many institutions with an unusually hot summer mean some incarcerated people, and the corrections personnel who supervise them, may not always get access to needed cooling, placing them all at risk of heat-related illnesses, outside experts and advocates say.

“Summertime in the Crain Unit (a women’s prison unit near Gatesville) was like sitting in a hot car, with the windows partially down, in a Walmart parking lot, all during the heat of the day,” advocate Jennifer Toon said. “Try to read, or study, or write letters, or eat, or do anything really, in that hot car and see how it works.”

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Crain is partially air conditioned, with 788 air conditioned beds out of 2,115 total.

Toon said she spent about 20 years in the institutions of the TDCJ and the Texas Juvenile Justice Department, including a number of years in facilities near Gatesville, Marlin and Mart. She was released in 2018 and now works as an advocate for people who are incarcerated or who are disabled.

Texas Department of Criminal Justice spokesperson Amanda Hernandez said her department takes its responsibility to protect inmates, employees and the public seriously.

“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,” Hernandez said. “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.”

Prioritizing cool space

The department recognizes that some inmates are potentially at a heightened risk of heat-related illnesses because of their age, health conditions or medications, she said.

“These individuals are identified through an automated heat sensitivity score that uses information from the inmate’s electronic health record,” Hernandez said.

Convicts who have a heat sensitivity score receive priority for placement in an air-conditioned cell, she said. 

Seven of the eight prison units in McLennan and Coryell counties are partially air conditioned, with at least some beds air conditioned, and one unit if fully air conditioned, Hernandez said.

Mitigation’s limits

Statewide, two-thirds of TDCJ facilities are largely un-air conditioned, said attorney Michele Deitch, director of the Prison and Jail Innovation Lab at the University of Texas.

“This is a disaster for the incarcerated as well as the employees,” Deitch said.

Her Prison and Jail Innovation Lab works to ensure the safe and humane treatment of people in custody and to cultivate justice policy leaders.

A recent report from Texas A&M University and Texas Prison Community Advocates, “Extreme Temperatures and COVID-19 in Texas Prisons,” found that mitigation measures in place do not always work.

“In fact mitigation often doesn’t work,” said lead author J. Carlee Purdum, a research assistant professor in Texas A&M University’s Hazard Reduction and Recovery Center.

For the report, Purdum and her students analyzed and extracted key data from surveys on the effectiveness of heat remedies in prisons without full air conditioning. The surveys went out to about 300 incarcerated people in about 57 institutions, she said.

Hernandez said all inmates and staff have access to ice and water, but Purdum said that does not always happen in practice.

“Coolers with ice and water sometimes run out, because as many as 80 people may be sharing the ice and water from a single cooler,” Purdum said. “Sometimes an inmate can’t access the ice or water because they have no cup.”

Another mitigation measure cited by Hernandez, access to an air-conditioned area when needed, also has limits, Toon said. She specifically named the Hobby unit near Marlin, which has seven beds air conditioned out of 1,384 total beds, as a unit where this remedy does not always work.

“Getting to those spots for the respite, for the cooling that TDCJ says is open and available, inmates are subject to guards to take them there,” Toon said.

Lack of staffing at Hobby has always been troublesome, Toon said.

As a result, “Guards are hot and cranky and agitated, too,” she said.

Deitch also said under-staffing across the Texas prison system creates a problem with getting inmates to cooling respite and with overall prison operation.

“At least one facility is staffed at 38% of required positions,” Deitch said. “Across the system, there are huge numbers of staff vacancies. Many prisons can’t operate properly.”

Health risks

Despite challenges, the precautions TDCJ takes keep inmates safe, even during this summer’s record-setting heat wave, Hernandez said.

“In 2022, there have been seven inmates who required medical care beyond first aid for heat related injuries and none were fatal,” Hernandez said.

She said that during the same time period, the average inmate population was 118,299, with more than 3,700 inmates entering the system each month and about 3,500 inmates released each month.

All of these inmates entering the system have their electronic health records processed for heat sensitivity rating and possible placement in an air-conditioned cell, Hernandez said.

Toon and Purdum both acknowledged the department’s effort to place incarcerated people with medical needs in air-conditioned housing.

Purdum said many incarcerated people with mental health issues take medication to improve their mental health that disrupts the body’s ability to cool itself and regulate temperature.

Toon said TDCJ does try to put people with medical needs into the air-conditioned cell blocks.

“But there are too many people to squeeze into those few cell blocks,” Toon said.

She said this is particularly true at the Hobby Unit.

“Women who transfer from Hobby have a myriad of medical problems anyway,” Toon said.

She believes health conditions are made worse or caused by the heat in which so many incarcerated people and the corrections officers who supervise them spend so much time every summer.

Detich said health conditions and medication effectiveness are made worse when people spend a great deal of time in the heat. 

“There have been deaths and medical problems worsened by extreme heat,” Deitch said.

In her research on prison hazards, Purdum also found that prolonged exposure to high heat degrades overall health.

“Long term exposure to high heat can create new health conditions,” Purdum said. “It put stress on the body, the organs, the heart.”

She also said suicide attempts in prisons climb in the summers, particularly among prisoners who may choose to go off mental health medications so their bodies can better regulate temperature.

Incarcerated people with heart conditions, asthma, diabetes or who are pregnant all have their health made worse by the heat, Purdum said.

Toon said that prolonged exposure to heat and the resulting health problems were not part of the judge’s sentence.

“When they endure such conditions and know that society knows about this and does nothing, this makes it difficult to trust communities after having been treated as less than human for so long,” Toon said.

Most people who see a pet trapped in hot car in the summertime would report it or try to get the pet out, Toon said. They would not leave a pet trapped in the heat, yet they look the other way for people in prison.

“This is what we’re doing to other human beings in the prison system,” Toon said.