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Texas prisoners struggle to endure heat wave in facilities without air conditioning

 Two hours east of Waco, TDCJ's Coffield Unit sits among green pastures and rural roads.
Paul Flahive
/
TPR
Two hours east of Waco, TDCJ's Coffield Unit sits among green pastures and rural roads.

A deadly heat wave continues across the Southwest, and an often forgotten group of people affected are prisoners.

Many inmates struggle to stay cool in aging facilities, including in Texas — where some 100,000 prisoners live in large facilities that lack air conditioning.

One inmate told TPR the best way to describe what it’s like to be in a Texas prison cell without air conditioning is to think of a cookout on a hot day.

“It’s like you’re standing over a grill all day,” he said.

TPR is not using his name because Texas prison rules bar him from giving phone interviews. He also worried about retribution from administrators.

He explained that he goes to bed drenched in sweat every night and wakes up drenched every day. Throughout the day, he tries to stay cool by dousing himself in water.

“The lower you are, the cooler it is, so I put water on my ground and lay in it sometimes. It's just me pretty much naked in the cell,” he said.

Data from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice obtained from a state lawmaker showed its 68 prisons without air conditioning were sweltering last month, averaging well over 85 degrees.That would be a safety violation for a county jail, which mandates temperatures remain below 85 degrees.

June temperature readings at TDCJ facilities with unaircontitioned housing reveal that the state was overwhelmingly in excess of 85 degrees (in yellow) and often over 90 (orange) and 100 (red). While this would be a safety violation in a jail, no regulation exists for the state prison system. See a detailed spreadsheet below
Courtesy of Texas Department of Criminal Justice. Color Coding by TPR
June temperature readings at TDCJ facilities with unaircontitioned housing reveal that the state was overwhelmingly in excess of 85 degrees (in yellow) and often over 90 (orange) and 100 (red). While this would be a safety violation in a jail, no regulation exists for the state prison system. See a detailed spreadsheet below

But no such regulation exists for state prisons — some of which reached as high as 106 degrees last month, according to TDCJ. Those readings weren’t taken at the height of facilities’ heat. The state measures the heat at 3 p.m., generally considered the hottest part of the day, but not inside a facility where heat is a reflection of previous hours that continues to rise.

Heat estimates are as high as 115 degrees. Advocates have said the highs even exceed that in taller facilities where the heat rises to third and fourth floors.

Don Aldaco spent 14 years in several Texas prisons without air conditioning. He said he believes the temperatures at the Ferguson Unit's third and fourth floors easily exceeded 150 degrees.

“And sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night where I'm pouring sweat, you know. I'm pouring sweat, but I'm thinking that I've got something crawling on me, but it's the actual sweat pouring off your body,” he said.

Aldaco said he was lucky to get three hours of sleep a night on the hottest days. He was paroled in April, and this was the first time in more than a decade he will spend summer outside.

“I've been able to go outside when it's 120, 115 with the heat index. And I get in my car, and it's hot. It's extremely hot. That's nothing compared to being in prison,” he said.

A spokeswoman for the state prison system said administrators take special precautions for heat-sensitive inmates by keeping them in air conditioned beds. For everyone else, they offer limited access to respite or air conditioned areas and — when possible — offer additional showers and ice, and they allow personal fans.

 State prison location in relation to temperature as well as color coded for their status. Partial AC means housing units still don't have air conditioning.
TPR
State prison location in relation to temperature as well as color coded for their status. Partial AC means housing units still don't have air conditioning.

“Over the past several years, the agency has worked to increase the number of cooled beds available. Since Fiscal Year 2018-19, TDCJ has added air conditioning to 3,598 beds. Additionally, there is an active project for FY 23 that will add 5,861 cooled beds. This will bring the total to 9,459 beds added between FY18-23,” said Amanda Hernandez, a spokesperson for TDCJ.

The state has around 42,000 cooled beds for 145,000 prisoners statewide.

The unnamed inmate in a North Texas prison who spoke with TPR said those efforts aren’t enough. Corrections officers blamed the situation on an ongoing staffing crisis.

"Their excuse for everything is the staff. We're not getting showers — you might get to shower once or twice a week. You might go to recreation once or twice a week. You get cold water once or twice today, and the excuse always is staff, staff, staff,” he said.

The inmate says he was concerned about his health. So was Kiera Henderson, a 24-year-old at Murray Unit, which is an hour west of Waco.

“I have asthma. The heat has taking a toll on me mentally because I feel as I can't think straight, and I get angry,” she said in an email.

“I'm administrative segregation (solitary confinement). It is so hot — like, if I put candy on my table, it will melt even if my windows are covered.”

A 2022 study by theJournal of the American Medical Associationfound271 prisoner deaths in Texas facilities without air conditioning between 2001 and 2019 may have been attributable to extreme heat days.

Between June 1 and July 13, 78 inmates have died throughout all TDCJ prisons — an increase of more than 20% from the prior six weeks and nearly a third more deaths from same period in the much milder summer of 2021. Despite this, the state has not seen a heat-related death in more than a decade.

"I think it is very well documented that heat has contributed to deaths in this prison system,” said Joe Moody, a member of the Texas House who is one of several Democrats who have tried to pass legislation to air condition state prisons for years.

“There's no need for us to continue to allow folks to cook — literally cook — in our prisons. And that's something we should always find unacceptable,” he said.

Moody's bill again failed in the last legislative session. The Republican-dominated state Senate stripped more than $500 million out of the budget that would have dramatically increased air conditioning in prisons throughout the system. But there is a chance that the bill could be resurrected in a special session.


Copyright 2023 Texas Public Radio. To see more, visit Texas Public Radio.

Paul Flahive is the technology and entrepreneurship reporter for Texas Public Radio. He has worked in public media across the country, from Iowa City and Chicago to Anchorage and San Antonio.
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