Texas inmates didn’t deserve a cold shoulder this winter

Telford Prison in New Boston, Texas in 2015.
Telford Prison in New Boston, Texas in 2015. NYT

What would you have done, during these last few weeks of bitter cold, had a neighbor told you that his heater was broken?

You would have offered to help, right?

A blanket, a space heater, a spare bedroom for a night.

Perhaps if you're handy, you would have tried to fix the heater yourself.

Would your willingness to assist a person in need be tempered if you knew she was a convicted criminal?

We hope not. We hope most people feel compassion and not disdain for other people in need, regardless of their criminal status.

During our recent cold snap an unknown number of Texas prison inmates reportedly spent several weeks shivering. Heating at some state facilities was woefully inadequate.

Jennifer Erschabek, the executive director of the Texas Inmate Families Association (TIFA), used social media to ask families of inmates about the conditions at state prisons. She received an overwhelming response and compiled a list of about two dozen units that were experiencing heat problems, including the Allred Unit near Wichita Falls.

Eschabek said members of Fort Worth's TIFA chapter were in touch with the warden, who told them a part to fix the heater had been ordered and was on its way.

That was cold comfort for the inmates waiting heat, a basic service.

Robert Hurst, a public information officer with the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, told the Star-Telegram Editorial Board that all TDCJ facilities are currently operating with adequate heat, that temporary heaters are brought in when necessary, and "extra blankets and coats are made available to offenders at all times."

Erschabek disputes some of that. She said at some units, guards regularly checked building temperatures, fixed heaters, covered windows and offered blankets. But the inmates at other facilities were not so lucky.

She attributes the winter heating woes to TDCJ's limited state funding.

In the summer inmates suffer from too much heat. Most state prisons and jails don’t have air conditioning and the inmates live with suffocating conditions when triple-digit weather sets in.

An ongoing lawsuit is demanding the state improve summer conditions. While they’re at it they should fix the heating for winter.

The Texas state prison system is the largest in the nation. But increasingly tight budgets have made maintenance and upkeep a challenge.

We know there are plenty of underfunded state services. This is one where lawmakers have an obligation to ensure Texans in state facilities are living in conditions that are humane and safe.

"We understand that they're there for punishment," said Erschabek, "but not for torture."

She's right.