Winter right time to start thinking about summer heat in Texas prisons

02/08/2014 12:00 AM

02/07/2014 7:12 PM

In the days following bone-chilling temperatures — accompanied by snow and ice — across much of Texas, it’s easy not to focus on the summer months in the Lone Star State when the mercury often lingers above the 100-degree mark.

But this is exactly the time to be thinking about those summer temperatures, and particularly about a group of people who perhaps suffer the most in the sweltering heat: inmates in state prisons.

Although there are still individuals who wrongly believe that prisoners sit around in air-conditioned comfort all day watching cable television, the truth is that most of the 152,000 inmates in Texas penitentiaries suffer in non-air-conditioned facilities where temperatures have been known to reach 130 degrees.

Of the state’s 109 prison units, only 19 (medical units and special-needs lockups) have climate control.

At least 14 inmates have died of heat-related causes since 2007, prompting several families to file wrongful death lawsuits against the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

In an ironic twist last year, a union representing correctional officers, who work in the same conditions the inmates live with every day, joined in a class action suit to get air-conditioning for state prisons.

Lance Lowry, president of the Huntsville-based local of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, pointed out a cruel irony in an opinion piece published in November in The New York Times.

“In August, right around the time when the Texas summer heat was its brutal worst, the state’s prison system finalized a bid to replace its aging swine-production facilities with six new climate-controlled modular barns, at a cost of $750,000,” Lowry wrote.

In other words, hogs being raised for slaughter to help feed inmates were being treated better than the humans in the system.

While the court cases may eventually bring some relief to those behind bars, it will be a long while before any judicial decisions come down, and even longer before the Texas Legislature gets around to appropriating the estimated $55 million needed to air-condition facilities.

In the meantime, most prisoners will continue to suffer, especially if they can’t afford to purchase a $20 fan from the prison commissary. And there are thousands who have nowhere near that amount of money on their books.

Due to the efforts of a nonprofit organization, with the help from some of our readers and other caring individuals, many indigent (as certified by TDCJ) inmates are provided fans.

Since 2002, Texas Citizens for the Rehabilitation of Errants (TX-CURE), has raised money specifically for this project. During the past 12 years more than 7,000 fans have been distributed to Texas prisoners.

Every year the demand has exceeded the resources available, meaning that of the 1,000 or so who request a fan each year, 200 to 300 likely won’t receive one.

This is a project I’ve supported since it started, and I’ve watched the contributions grow, allowing for more fan purchases every year.

Michael Jewell, president of TX-CURE, said the organization began accepting inmates’ requests last month and, he notes, the prison system has made it a little easier for them to apply.

TDCJ will verify those who are indigent and send a list of those eligible to TX-CURE, and the group then sends a check to the Inmate Trust Fund to cover what costs it can.

The project is operated by volunteers, so every dollar collected goes directly for the purchase of fans.

It would be great if we could honor every request. We could, of course, with your help.

To assist, send a check or money order to: TX-CURE Fan Project, P. O. Box 38381, Dallas, TX 75238-0381.

About Bob Ray Sanders

Bob Ray Sanders

@BobRaySanders

Bob Ray Sanders is often criticized for writing about things he could not have experienced because, some readers say, "he can't be that old." The truth is Bob Ray has been a professional journalist for 40 years and in three media: newspaper, television and radio.

A Fort Worth native who knows and cares about his community, and those with whom he shares this planet, this is a columnist who is not afraid to speak out on behalf of downtrodden people or the abused Earth.

Email Bob Ray at bobraysanders@star-telegram.com.

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