BY Jolie McCullough
The Texas Department of Criminal Justice may soon have to report to the Legislature how hot it gets inside the state’s uncooled prisons during the warm months of the year.
An amendment added Wednesday to the House’s proposed state budget would require the department to log how hot it is inside a prison cell or housing area in each state run prison and jail every day at 3 p.m. between April and September. The amendment, filed by state Rep. Joe Moody, D-El Paso, was tentatively adopted into the chamber’s budget during a subcommittee meeting.
The proposal comes two weeks after The Texas Tribune reported that an inmate died last summer from what a medical examiner said was environmental hyperthermia, often referred to as heatstroke. TDCJ has contested that cause of death, saying the medical examiner evaluation was preliminary and the inmate was in a cell with air conditioning.
Last year, the prison system settled a long and expensive lawsuit by agreeing to install air conditioning in one hot prison.
“There’s been some issues highlighted within TDCJ through the media and court cases that have certainly called into question whether we are handling heat-related illness and death properly,” Moody told the Tribune after filing his amendment. “If we need to keep a closer eye on it to make sure we’re not subject to litigation, then we need to do that.”
If it remains in the budget, the rider will require the prison system to give the internal temperature logs to the Texas Legislature in an annual report. The report would also include inmate complaints related to temperature, deaths caused by or exacerbated by temperature, and agency procedures used to manage the heat inside Texas uncooled prisons.
The proposal would still need to make it through the full Appropriations Committee and both the House and Senate to go into effect.
A spokesperson for TDCJ said he could not immediately comment on the adopted amendment. Last year, he told the Dallas Morning News that the agency recorded temperatures outside of prisons, but that it was difficult to record interior temperatures “because you cannot assume that one location is exactly the same as any other.”
Almost 75 percent of the more than 100 state-run prisons and jails do not have air conditioning in most housing areas. Heat stroke deaths and heat-related illnesses of inmates and guards in Texas prisons have gained increased attention since the now-settled lawsuit against the Wallace Pack Unit near College Station was filed in 2014 and several wrongful death lawsuits appeared after a 2011 heat wave. Lawyers representing inmates in the Pack case pointed to at least 23 heat stroke deaths in the Texas prison system since 1998.
A federal judge slammed the agency in 2017, saying that it was “deliberately indifferent” to the risks posed by the heat. The judge ruled that conditions at the prison were unconstitutional for medically vulnerable inmates. He issued temporary orders for the state to place that group in air-conditioned housing during the summers. There are currently about 30,000 air-conditioned beds in the prison system, according to recent legislative testimony from department leaders.
Last February, the state settled the lawsuit and went beyond the order, agreeing to install air conditioning in the prison, as well as beginning to move the more medically vulnerable inmates throughout the entire prison system into cooler beds.
With the lawsuit in mind, TDCJ last year also established new efforts to combat sweltering conditions inside Texas prisons, including revised heat protocols and a new incident command system to ensure policies are being followed. The protocols included minimizing outside work hours, serving cooler meals and providing more cool showers and ice water during heat waves. The command system, to be initiated during those heat waves, first went into effect one day after an inmate, Robert Robinson, died from the contested claim of hyperthermia.
Moody said that his budget proposal is a proactive step in ensuring inmates are not subject to cruel and unusual punishment.
“At the end of the day,” he said, “they are human beings.”
Two other Democrats, state Sen. José Menéndez, of San Antonio, and state Rep. Terry Canales, of Edinburg, have filed legislation related to the heat in Texas prisons. They are long-shot bills that would require Texas prison facilities to be kept between 65 and 85 degrees, matching what is required at all local and county jails.