April 23, 2014
Summer in Texas prisons is so sweltering that the heat violates international human rights standards and has caused the deaths of at least 14 inmates since 2007, according to a new study.
The extreme temperatures in state-run facilities also breach the US constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishments, said the report released on Tuesday by the Austin-based Human Rights Clinic of the University of Texas School of Law.
It cites a Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) temperature log that showed a heat index of at least 65C (149F) at 10:30am at a unit in Dallas on 19 July 2011. Heat index is a way of measuring how hot it feels by combining temperature and humidity. The National Weather Service issues extreme heat alerts when the index is expected to exceed 105-110F for two consecutive days or more.
“Over the years, TDCJ facilities seem to have seen little improvement, completely disregarding the rights and dignity of its inmates. Since 2007, at least fourteen inmates have died from extreme heat in nine different TDCJ prisons,” the report states.
There are about 150,000 people incarcerated in TDCJ prisons. Most facilities do not have air conditioning other than in medical, psychiatric and geriatric buildings. The study calls for TDCJ to install air conditioning to keep temperatures in housing areas below 85F *(29,4C). Until that is achieved it suggests officials should screen and monitor susceptible prisoners and provide easy access to cool liquids and ice. It also recommends that the TDCJ set a temperature limit for prisoners’ cells, as is the case in county jails and in other states.
“There is no standard of how hot a person could get. That shows that Texas is behind many other southern states – Arizona, Oklahoma, Arkansas, New Mexico, all of them have different standards. Some of them establish 85F as the maximum temperature in a prison,” the clinic’s director, Ariel Dulitzky, told the Guardian.
“We are convinced that Texas is breaking international human rights laws and US constitutional law,” he said. “We believe it’s a lack of political will from the authorities at the TDCJ, they refuse to acknowledge there’s a problem … There’s a belief that everybody suffers extreme heat in Texas and that is true. The difference is that I can be in my office and have air conditioning.”
The report said that 92 correctional officers suffered heat-related injuries or illnesses in 2012. “We’re placing these employees at great risk by working in these type of conditions without any climate control,” said Lance Lowry, a correctional officer and president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union branch in Huntsville, where Texas’s state prison system has its headquarters.
Lowry said that some officers have passed out or vomited. “We’ve had numerous members report getting extremely ill at work from extreme heat. A lot of these officers are in prisons wearing stab-resistant vests which hold a lot of heat,” he told the Guardian, adding that the conditions harmed productivity and safety.
“There’s definitely a problem among inmates who are on psychiatric medications. A lot of those medications are heat-reactive, and what we’ve seen is inmates during hot times will stop taking these medications that normally keep them calm. Once they stop taking these medications they become more aggressive towards staff,” he said.
Lowry thinks that in the long run it would be cheaper to install air conditioning than to keep paying for medical treatment made necessary by the heat.
“The wellbeing of staff and offenders is a top priority for the agency and we remain committed to making sure that both are safe during the extreme heat,” Jason Clark, a TDCJ spokesman, said in a statement.
“TDCJ takes precautions to help reduce heat-related illnesses such as providing water and ice to staff and offenders in work and housing areas, restricting offender activity during the hottest parts of the day, and training staff to identify those with heat related illnesses and refer them to medical staff for treatment. Although a detailed cost analysis has not been done, retrofitting facilities with air conditioning would be extremely expensive.
“Dulitzky plans to submit the report’s findings to the relevant United Nations bodies and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, while the Texas Civil Rights Project has filed lawsuits against TDCJ on behalf of some inmates and their families.
Texas prison officials do appear willing to spend generously on cooling equipment in certain circumstances. It was reported last year that TDCJ signed a $750,000 deal to buy climate-controlled housing for its pig-breeding programme.
“We need to have a grown-up discussion of what’s practical and reasonable and what’s politically acceptable,” Texas senate Criminal Justice committee chairman John Whitmire, a Houston Democrat, told the Houston Chronicle. “But I can tell you, the people of Texas don’t want air-conditioned prisons, and there’s a lot of other things on my list above the heat. It’s hot in Texas, and a lot of Texans who are not in prison don’t have air conditioning.”