Texas summers are infamous for their searing heat, and for the incarcerated population in the state’s prisons, the lack of air conditioning can be deadly. Despite repeated pleas from advocates, attorneys, and the state’s primary correctional officers’ union, the legislature has failed to take action on this issue for years.
However, recent progress on four bills aimed at temperature control has given hope for change, with Senate Bill 1708 already passing through the House on Wednesday, according to Dallas Press News. The bill mandates that prisons maintain temperatures between 65 and 85 degrees. Advocates, including Jenny Hixon of the Texas Civil Rights Project, are hopeful that the legislature will finally take action.
During a press conference on the state Capitol building steps, Rep. Carl O. Sherman shared a story about a middle-aged white woman incarcerated in a prison where she was responsible for working on the HVAC systems to keep others cool but had to return to her dorm with no air conditioning. “How cruel is that?” he asked the audience. As of now, people incarcerated in 79 of the 107 Texas prisons do not have air conditioning in all living quarters, meaning they are exposed to temperatures as high as 130 degrees during the sweltering summer months. This lack of air conditioning has been an issue for decades, with advocates urging the state government to address it.
The prospects of the bill passing in the Senate remain uncertain, but advocates remain hopeful that the current legislative session will be different from previous ones. Representative Terry Canales recently noted that a similar bill passed the House two years ago but was never taken up by the Senate, a decision he laid at the feet of Lt. Governor Dan Patrick. If Patrick does not bring the bill to the floor, Canales warns, “people will continue to roast alive.” Patrick has not responded to requests for comments on the matter.
Incarcerated individuals and their families have shared stories about living in uncooled cinder block boxes when the summer heat arrives. Filmed testimonials shared by Jenny Hixon reveal intense suffering, with prisoners waiting weeks to consult with a doctor about heat rash and receiving hydrocortisone from the commissary as a prescription. The mortality rate during warm months in prison has been a point of concern, with a study conducted by Boston, Brown, and Harvard University estimating that 13% of prison mortality between 2001 and 2019 may be due to extreme heat, which translates to approximately 271 deaths during that period, not including the record-breaking summer of 2022 and the three summers in which COVID-19 infections raged throughout Texas prisons.
In addition to incarcerated individuals, prison officers are also affected by the lack of cooling, experiencing a 40.3% turnover rate in 2021, according to the Texas State Auditor’s Office. Advocates argue that working in such conditions poses significant challenges and leads to high levels of dissatisfaction among staff. The lack of air conditioning could contribute to these high turnover rates, as suggested by a spokesman from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.
Although there are concerns about the cost of installing AC units in Texas prisons, advocates emphasize the need to prioritize the humanity of the issue. Collin Packer, Rep. Sherman’s communications director, recently pointed out that Texas law mandates animal shelters to have proper air conditioning, but there is no such law for prisons. He reinforced the point that “When we view our fellow human beings as animals, we can begin to excuse our inhumane behavior towards them.” The health and well-being of incarcerated individuals and prison officers are at stake in the current legislative session, and advocates urge legislators to address this critical issue, regardless of the cost.