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More than a third of Texas prisons don't have air conditioning. A new bill would change that

This Wednesday, June 21, 2017 photo shows barbed wire surrounding the prison in Gatesville, Texas.
Jaime Dunaway
/
Associated Press
This Wednesday, June 21, 2017 photo shows barbed wire surrounding the prison in Gatesville, Texas.

A North Texas lawmaker is making the case for air conditioning in state prisons — an issue that's been debated in the state Legislature since at least the previous legislative session.

Carl O. Sherman, D-DeSoto, is one of the authors of House Bill 1708, which would require the internal temperatures in state prisons to be between 65 and 85 degrees. On Wednesday, the House passed the bill on to the Senate.

The House vote was 124 yes votes to 24 no votes. Five North Texans Republicans voted against the bill. KERA reached out to each of those representatives but they did not respond to a request for comment.

A similar bill was passed in the House during the 2021 legislative session. The current bill's fate in the Senate remains uncertain.

Sherman was joined by a group of prison reform advocates from across the state at the steps of the Capitol in Austin on Thursday morning.

"This is important, not just for those who have been convicted of a crime," Sherman said. "It's also important for those who we employ the 20,000 correctional officers who provide public safety in the interest of our communities."

Texas is one of 13 states that doesn't require air conditioning in prisons, where temperatures can reach as high as 149 degrees Fahrenheit, according to a report released last year by the Texas A&M's Hazard Reduction and Recovery Center.

Among the advocates who spoke at the Capitol was Richard Miles, who was exonerated in 2012 after being wrongfully convicted for a murder in 1995. He spent 15 years incarcerated at the Coffield unit in Anderson County, one of the largest prisons in the state.

Miles shared his story of working in the infirmary at Coffield and seeing inmates being brought in because they couldn't handle the heat.

"You go into a cell that has no heating," Miles said. "Imagine being on the fourth floor and dying of a heat stroke."

Dr. Amite Dominick, president of Texas Prisons Community Advocates, said the conditions in prisons are inhumane for both inmates and staff and have resulted in serious injury and even death for prisoners.

"We are literally baking people — human beings — in the state of Texas," Dominick said.

A spokesperson for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice said the department doesn't comment on pending legislation.

Sherman spoke directly to legislators who oppose the bill by arguing treating prisoners for heat-related injuries has a cost for taxpayers.

"The costs that can be eliminated just by having human passion," Sherman said. "We should just do the right thing by adding permanent AC in our housing units."

Got a tip? Email Pablo Arauz Peña at parauzpena@kera.org

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Copyright 2023 KERA. To see more, visit KERA.

Pablo Arauz Peña
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