The Texas Department of Criminal Justice, which manages state prisons, has mitigation measures and respite plans. But the combination of a severe employment crisis in many institutions and an unusually hot summer means that some inmates, and the corrections staff who supervise them, may not always get the necessary cooling, putting them all at risk of heat-related illness, outside experts and advocates say.
“The summer at Crain[a women’s prison unit near Gatesville]was like sitting in a hot car, windows partly lowered, in the Walmart parking lot, all during the heat of the day,” said advocate Jennifer Tun. “Try to read, study, write letters, eat, or do anything really, in that hot car and see how it works.”
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Crane is partially air-conditioned, with 788 air-conditioned beds out of a total of 2115 beds.
Ton said she spent about 20 years at the TDCJ and the Texas Department of Juvenile Justice, including a number of years at facilities near Gatesville, Marlin and Mart. She was released in 2018 and now works as an advocate for people who are imprisoned or disabled.
Texas Department of Criminal Justice spokeswoman Amanda Hernandez said her department takes its responsibility to protect inmates, staff and the public very seriously.
“Like many Texans who don’t have access to air conditioning in their homes, the department uses a range of measures to keep inmates safe,” Hernandez said. “Everyone has access to ice and water. Fans are strategically placed in facilities to move air. Guests have access to a fan and can access air-conditioned comfort areas when needed.”
Prioritize cold spaces
She said management understands that some inmates are likely to be at increased risk of heat-related illness due to their age, health conditions or medications.
“These individuals are identified by an automated thermal sensitivity score that uses information from the inmate’s electronic health record,” Hernandez said.
She said convicts who are sensitive to heat are given priority placement in an air-conditioned cell.
Hernandez said that seven of the eight prison units in McLennan and Correll counties are partially air-conditioned, with at least some beds air-conditioned, and one if fully air-conditioned.
Statewide, two-thirds of TDCJ facilities are largely unconditioned, said attorney Michelle Deitch, director of the Prison and Inventory Laboratory at the University of Texas.
“This is a disaster for prisoners and staff alike,” Deitch said.
The Innovation Lab in her prison and prison works to ensure the safe and humane treatment of detained persons and to nurture justice policy leaders.
A recent report from Texas A&M University and Texas prison community advocates, “Extreme Temperatures and COVID-19 in Texas Prisons,” finds that mitigation measures in place do not always work.
“In reality, mitigation often doesn’t work,” said lead author J. Carly Berdom, a research assistant professor at Texas A&M University’s Center for Risk Reduction and Recovery.
For the report, Perdom and her students analyzed and extracted baseline data from surveys on the effectiveness of heat treatments in prisons without full air conditioning. She said that the surveys were conducted on about 300 prisoners in about 57 institutions.
Hernandez said all prisoners and staff have access to ice and water, but Berdom said this does not always happen in practice.
“The ice and water coolers sometimes run out, because up to 80 people may be sharing ice and water from one cooler,” Berdom said. “Sometimes a guest can’t access ice or water because he doesn’t have a cup.”
Tun said another mitigation measure Hernandez cited, access to an air-conditioned area when needed, also has limitations. The Hobby Unit near Marlin, which contains seven air-conditioned beds out of a total of 1,384 beds, was specifically named as a unit where this treatment doesn’t always work.
“Getting to those places to get some rest, because the refrigeration that TDCJ says is open and available, inmates are subject to guards to take them there,” Tun said.
Ton said the shortage of staff at Hobby has always been bothersome.
As a result, “the guards are hot, cranky, and agitated as well,” she said.
Deitch also said that staffing shortages across the Texas prison system create a problem in getting inmates to enjoy a break with the prison process in general.
“At least one facility has 38% of in-demand jobs,” Deitch said. “Across the system, there are a large number of vacancies. Many prisons are not functioning properly.”
Despite the challenges, Hernandez said, the precautions the Truth and Dignity Commission is taking are keeping inmates safe, even during this summer’s record-breaking heat wave.
“In 2022, there were seven prisoners who required medical care other than first aid for heat-related injuries and none of them were fatal,” Hernandez said.
Over the same time period, she said, the average number of female inmates was 118,299, with more than 3,700 inmates entering the system each month and about 3,500 inmates being released each month.
All of those prisoners entering the system had their electronic health records processed, Hernandez said, for heat sensitivity rating and possible placement in an air-conditioned cell.
Toon and Purdum acknowledged the department’s efforts to place incarcerated people with medical needs into air-conditioned housing.
Berdom said that many prisoners with mental health issues take medications to improve their mental health that disrupt the body’s ability to cool itself and regulate temperature.
Ton said the TDCJ is trying to put people with medical needs into the blocks of air-conditioned cells.
“But there are too many people to squeeze into those few blocks of cells,” Ton said.
She said this is especially true in the Hobbies unit.
“Women who moved from Hubei had a myriad of medical problems anyway,” Ton said.
She believes the sanitary conditions are worsened or caused by the heat in which many prisoners and the corrections officers who supervise them spend so much time each summer.
Ditech said the health conditions and drug efficacy worsen when people spend too much time in the heat.
“There have been deaths and medical problems exacerbated by the extreme temperatures,” Deitch said.
In her research on prison dangers, Perdom also found that prolonged exposure to high heat worsens public health.
“Long-term exposure to high heat can create new health conditions,” Berdom said. “It stresses the body, organs, and heart.”
She also said that suicide attempts in prisons increase in the summer, particularly among prisoners who may choose to stop taking mental health medications until their bodies can better regulate their temperature.
Berdom said that incarcerated people who have heart disease, asthma, diabetes or are pregnant are deteriorating due to the heat.
Ton said prolonged exposure to heat and resulting health problems were not part of the judge’s ruling.
“When they endure such conditions and know that society knows it and does nothing, it makes it difficult to trust societies after they have been treated as less than human for so long,” Tun said.
Ton said most people who see a pet trapped in a hot car in the summer will report it or try to get the pet out. They won’t let a pet trapped in the heat, but look the other way for people in prison.
“This is what we do to other humans in the prison system,” Ton said.