TDCJ takes a small step to address the heat problems in state prisons

06/24/2014 5:01 PM

06/24/2014 5:02 PM

The extreme heat inside Texas prison units during the summer — sometimes reaching as high as 115 degrees Fahrenheit — has been an issue for years, with little reaction or show of concern coming from state officials and authorities within the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

Contrary to popular belief, the majority of state penitentiaries are not air-conditioned. Of the 109 prison units, housing more than 150,000 inmates, only 19 (medical and special needs facilities) have climate control for prisoners’ living areas.

A report by the Human Rights Clinic at The University of Texas School of Law last month documented at least 14 heat-related deaths in the system since 2007.

As a result, several lawsuits have been filed against TDCJ, including one by correctional officers, alleging that conditions inside the mostly metal and concrete prisons violate the constitutional prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.

Just this month, a federal lawsuit was filed on behalf of four inmates who, among other things, allege that their metal bunks are so hot they sleep on the concrete floors, The Associated Press reported.

This year TDCJ is installing cooling systems in seven units (three transfer facilities and four state jails), but officials are quick to say it has nothing to do with lawsuits or the growing criticism about the heat problem.

The wire service said that the cooling devices are similar to those used on the sidelines of football games played in the heat. Each unit consists of “a large fan inside about 6-foot-by-6-foot box. Water from a hose behind the $1,800 device flows over coils that cool the air pushed by the fan.”

That’s not an ideal situation, but it likely offers some relief for prisoners who have access to the cooler air.

Regardless of why the prison system made that move, it was at least a step in the right direction in addressing a deplorable condition. But it is far from being enough.

It’s estimated that it will cost $55 million to air-condition state prison facilities, an amount the Legislature is not likely to allocate anytime soon.

This ought to be a state priority. If lawmakers don’t address it soon, Texas could spend a lot more on lawsuits than air conditioning.

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