Human rights group says Texas prisons are so hot during summers that ‘convicts and guards are broiling in conditions that are dangerous, unconstitutional and violate international human rights accords’
A story by in Mike Ward and Lauren McGaughy in today’s Houston Chronicle reports that the Human Rights Clinic at the University of Texas Law School has released a 40 page report highly critical of the summer heat conditions in Texas prisons. The group wants all 109 Texas state prisons air conditioned and wants the corrections system to take immediate steps to make sure that inside temperatures this summer do not exceed 85 degrees.
The correctional officers union has applauded the Human Rights Clinic report. But Brad Livingston, Executive Director of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ), is defending current heat situation. Livingston says: “We have significant protocols in place governing the movement of offenders early in the day for work assignments, we supply ice water and have fans and other equipment to increase air movement. We believe the protocols are appropriate.”
However, the law school clinic notes that the Center for Disease Control has “determined these measures to be ineffective in preventing heat-related injuries in very hot and humid conditions, such as those present in TDCJ facilities. The clinic report states:
“Despite these findings, TDCJ facilities largely do not provide air conditioning to the living areas of the general inmate population, many of whom are serving time for non-violent offenses. At the same time, the TDCJ has spent money on air conditioning for its warden offices and for its armories … (and) has not promulgated any maximum temperature policies for inmate housing, even though the Texas Commission on Jail Standards and numerous other state departments of corrections across the country have done so.”
“Continuing to disregard the plight of TDCJ inmates subject to extreme heat is not an option. [That] would be in violation of international human rights standards and the requirements of the Eighth Amendment if it were to do so.”
Since 1998, heat related illnesses have resulted in 19 Texas inmate deaths. Six lawsuits have been filed against the prison system over heat related deaths of inmates. One of those lawsuits alleges a cell temperature reached 149 degrees. The Chronicle story says that the heat repeatedly exceeds 115 degrees.
Now let’s get real here. Air condition all 109 Texas prisons? That would be cost prohibitive. And even if it were not, it would take years to complete the job. Heat related deaths in prisons are no different than heat related deaths among construction workers. The key to preventing those deaths in prison is to provide the inmates with plenty of drinking water and to restrict any strenuous activities during the hottest part of the day.
TDCJ, however, may not have its priorities in the right place. The department was criticized last year for spending $750,000 to build six air conditioned pig barns with ‘water misters that could lower summertime temperatures by up to 20 degrees and heaters in the winter – so the hogs would be comfortable.’ What we have here is pigs before convicts and correctional officers.