Texas Senate to Consider Bill Mandating Air Conditioning in Prisons

Texas is known for its sweltering summer heat, and for those incarcerated in the state’s prisons, the lack of air conditioning can be deadly. Despite the pleas of advocates, attorneys, and the state’s main correctional officers union, the legislature has repeatedly refused to take up the issue. However, recent progress on four bills focused on temperature control offers hope for change, with one bill, Senate Bill 1708, already passing through the House on Wednesday. If enacted, the bill would require prisons to maintain temperatures between 65 and 85 degrees. Advocates, including Jenny Hixon, an advocate with the Texas Civil Rights Project, hope that this time, the legislature will finally take action.

At a press conference on the steps of the state Capitol building, lawmaker Rep. Carl O. Sherman shared a story about a middle-aged white woman incarcerated in a prison where she was responsible for working on the HVAC systems to keep others cool, but returning to her dorm, where there is no AC. “How cruel is that?” he asked the audience. People incarcerated in 79 of the 107 Texas prisons do not have air conditioning in all living quarters, which means they are exposed to temperatures as high as 130 degrees during sweltering summer months. The lack of air conditioning has been a longstanding issue that advocates have been urging the state Government to address for decades.

While the prospects of the bill passing in the Senate remain uncertain, advocates remain hopeful that the current legislative session will be different from previous ones. However, not everyone shares that optimism. Representative Terry Canales recently noted that a similar bill passed the House two years ago but was never taken up by the Senate, a decision he laid at the feet of Lt. Governor Dan Patrick. If Patrick does not bring the bill to the floor, Canales warns, “people will continue to roast alive.” Patrick has not responded to requests for comments on the matter.

Many incarcerated people and their families have shared their stories about living in uncooled cinder block boxes when the summer heat arrives. Filmed testimonials shared by Jenny Hixon show intense suffering, with prisoners waiting weeks to consult with a doctor about heat rash and receiving hydrocortisone from the commissary as a prescription. The mortality rate during warm months in prison has been a point of concern, with a study conducted by Boston, Brown, and Harvard University estimating that 13% of prison mortality between 2001 and 2019 may be attributable to extreme heat. That’s approximately 271 deaths during that period, not including the record-breaking summer of 2022 and the three summers in which COVID-19 infections raged throughout Texas prisons.

In addition to incarcerated people, prison officers are also affected by the lack of cooling, experiencing a 40.3% turnover rate in 2021, according to the Texas State Auditor’s Office. Advocates argue that working in such conditions poses significant challenges and leads to high levels of dissatisfaction among staff. The lack of air conditioning could contribute to these high turnover rates, as suggested by a spokesman from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

Despite concerns about the cost of installing AC units in Texas prisons, advocates have been quick to point out the need to prioritize the humanity of the issue. Collin Packer, Rep. Sherman’s communications director, recently pointed out that Texas law requires animal shelters to have proper air conditioning, but there is no such law for prisons. He reinforced the point that “When we view our fellow human beings as animals, we can begin to excuse our inhumane behavior towards them.” At stake in the current legislative session is the health and well-being of incarcerated people and prison officers, with advocates urgeoing legislators to address this critical issue, regardless of the cost.

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