The Heated Battle For Cooled Texas Prisons
Extreme heat has killed nearly twenty people housed in correctional facilities. Now, inmates and guards have banded together to fight for improved conditions.
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The pigs, according to Lance Lowry, were the last straw.
The Texas Department of Criminal Justice has a sideline in raising livestock, and in 2013, the agribusiness department announced that it was going to build new climate-controlled barns for its pigs. As a correctional officer in Huntsville, Lowry knew all too well that most of TDCJ’s inmates live without air conditioning—only specific parts of the state’s prisons, such as the medical units and the warden’s offices, are protected from the heat. And as the president of his local chapter of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, a union representing civil service workers like himself, he was outraged by the knowledge that the pigs would be kept cool when the people inside the facilities would not.
Correctional officers and inmates have fundamentally opposite experiences of the criminal justice system in most respects, but they share one important commonality. As Lowry wrote in an op-ed in the New York Times last November, the inmates’ living conditions are the officers’ working conditions. And so, he continued, the union would support several families who had filed wrongful death lawsuits against the state after their relatives died from heat-related illnesses while serving time.
The question of whether Texas prisons should be air-conditioned has been simmering since 2012, when the first such lawsuit was filed on behalf of the family of Larry Gene McCollum, an inmate at the Hutchins Unit in Dallas who was serving an eleven-month sentence for forgery when he died of an underlying medical condition exacerbated by heatstroke. With another long summer approaching, the debate may soon be reanimated, as the correctional officers and inmates who have banded together have some strong evidence for their case: a major new report called “Deadly Heat in Texas Prisons,” released last month by the University of Texas School of Law’s Human Rights Clinic.
According to the report, nineteen inmates have died in non-air-conditioned TDCJ units since 1998—ten in the unusually hot summer of 2011 alone. A majority of the deceased inmates had been prescribed drugs by TDCJ’s health care program that affected their thermoregulation (such as diuretics for diabetes), making them more susceptible to the heat. One was developmentally disabled and housed in the “Mentally Retarded Offender Program” at the Hodge Unit, between Dallas and Shreveport. And the insult to injury is the news about the pigs, to be penned in air-conditioned areas while inmates and officers sweated through a heat index that regularly soared above 140 degrees in June, July, and August, the months during which all the deaths occurred.
TDCJ is attempting to dismiss the four lawsuits on the grounds that their current measures—holding special sessions for staff members and warning inmates of the heightened dangers, reemphasized during the summer—are enough. “The well-being of staff and offenders is a top priority for the agency,” TDCJ said in a statement, “and we remain committed to making sure that both are safe during the extreme heat. TDCJ takes precautions to help reduce heat-related illnesses such as providing water and ice to staff and offenders in work and housing areas, restricting offender activity during the hottest parts of the day, and training staff to identify those with heat-related illnesses and refer them to medical staff for treatment.”
But the precautions provide little relief. Areas in the units that have air-conditioning are of limited accessibility to the inmates and the correctional officers. (Solitary confinement cells are among the air-conditioned spaces, and inmates have asked to be put in them.) Those stuck in the heat have virtually no way to acclimatize, says Susi Vassallo, an NYU associate professor of medicine who is frequently called upon to speak on high-temperature conditions in prisons. “All of the actions that we take in the free world to cool ourselves from hot weather are not available for someone who’s incarcerated.” The officers, at least, can go home at the end of a workday, but overheating and “stroking out” on the job is well-documented.
A lack of funding, or the uneven allocation of it, is the root of the problem, says Brian McGiverin, an attorney with the Texas Civil Rights Project. TDCJ has an annual operating budget of more than $3 billion, but the system includes 112 separate units, and only a sliver of this money—a relatively paltry $79 million in a recent fiscal year, for example—is allocated for facilities management. Getting additional funding means appealing to the Lege, a tough sell to politicians who are vigilant about the budget and have not been especially concerned about the comfort of the state’s inmates. John Whitmire, a Democrat and the longtime chair of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, told the Houston Chronicle in April, “the people of Texas don’t want air-conditioned prisons, and there’s a lot of other things on my list above the heat.”
But advocates argue that the issue is a matter of constitutional rights—and courts have a history of agreeing. In December, a federal district judge in Baton Rouge ruled that extreme heat in Louisiana’s Angola prison—where death row inmates are housed—was tantamount to a violation of the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment, and that the heat index must be kept at or below 88 degrees. The case was appealed to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, which covers Texas as well. Other states have already tackled the issue and put it to rest: Arkansas’s Department of Corrections maintains a maximum temperature of 78 degrees, and the Tennessee Corrections Institute requires temperatures between 65 and 80 degrees. Even in Texas, as the University of Texas report notes, officials have tacitly agreed with similar measures: the Texas Commission on Jail Standards, which regulates the state’s county jails, calls for temperature levels to be maintained between 65 and 85 degrees.
The wrongful death lawsuits against TDCJ are pending. In the meantime, attorneys from the Civil Rights Project and Edwards Law, the Austin-based firm that filed the suits, believe that the correctional officers subjected to the same extreme conditions have the power to change minds.
“It’s indicative of how bad conditions have to be in a prison when the interests of the inmates and the officers guarding them are so in sync,” McGiverin said. And those officers may elicit more sympathy than the offenders: “Correctional officers are part of our law enforcement apparatus in the state, and I don’t think anyone would allow their local police department officers to be treated this way.”
“It’s an egregious way to treat government employees,” he continued. “It reminds me of when you read about steel workers from the nineteenth century: they work long hours, trudge into work for a draining shift, sweating, trying to drink water all day to survive. And in the meantime, they’re being asked to perform all matter of strenuous activity. [Correctional officers] are everyday people. Folks take those jobs because that’s what’s available, and they come to it with the best of intentions.”
To Lowry, the challenge is overcoming an archaic system that has consciously fought modernization. “It’s 2014. In the last thirty years, you’re not gonna be able to find a public building out there that hasn’t been equipped with some type of climate control.”
“There’s this approach that prisons should be tough,” he said. “It’s to the point where it has led to people’s deaths. People fail to realize that when a person is incarcerated, their punishment is their incarceration. I think there tends to be a mentality in this state of, well, we’ll go above and beyond. And unfortunately, not only are the inmates being punished, but the staff as well.”