TEXAS VIEW: Texas inmates may keep dying without A/C in prisons

THE POINT: State lawmakers refuse to act humanely by denying funding for prison air conditioning.

Being sentenced to a Texas prison shouldn’t amount to the death penalty.

But that’s what it may have been for hundreds of general population inmates who since 2001 may have died due to overheated state jails and prisons, according to the shocking conclusions of a recent academic study.

Yet, unconscionably, the Texas Senate refused to consider a House-approved bill that would have helped remedy this inhumane situation by providing funding to speed up installation of air conditioning systems in state lockup facilities.

We’ve said it again and again: Texas must install air conditioning in its prisons, some of which have reached sustained temperatures well beyond 100 degrees in summer months, according to an analysis of last summer’s heat logs by our colleague Lauren McGaughy. Thermometers inside inmate housing areas at Hutchins State Jail in Dallas County topped 95 degrees for 21 days in July.

The House bill’s $544 million price tag may have seemed steep, but we’re sitting on a $33 billion budget surplus this year, and this is an investment that Texas has to make.

If the basic well-being of inmates the state supervises can’t stir senators’ conscience, they should remember it isn’t just prisoners who suffer in the sweltering conditions.

State prison workers, too, are caught up in the state’s refusal to act. No wonder a Texas State Auditor’s report published in March 2022 found that the turnover rate among correctional officers was 40%, far higher than the state average of 21.5%.

But the most alarming statistics of all come from a study by researchers at Brown University School of Public Health and published in November in the the American Medical Association’s JAMA Network Open.

The study found that 13% of Texas prison deaths between 2001 and 2019 “may be attributed to extreme heat during warm months in Texas prisons without universal air conditioning.” That’s a total of 271 deaths.

Researchers further sounded this alarm: “Our findings have important health implications for the approximately 160,000 individuals held in Texas prison facilities annually as well as the thousands of correction officers, nurses and other staff that work in these settings.”

The possibility that so many inmates have died due to heat-related causes is in stark contrast to what prison officials have previously reported. The Texas Department of Criminal Justice has partly attributed the deaths of at least 23 inmates between 1998 and 2012, including one at Hutchins, to the lack of climate control in prisons.

TDCJ Director of Communications Amanda Hernandez did not respond to a request for comment on the JAMA study. But earlier in the week she told us that part of the $278 million the Legislature recently earmarked for deferred prison projects would go toward “adding air conditioned beds within the system.”

She didn’t elaborate on how much, but it’s clearly not enough. Texas lawmakers should do what it takes to treat inmates and prison workers with dignity.

The Dallas Morning News