A bill that would have tackled high temperatures at state jails and prisons has been eviscerated and replaced with a cost study. HB 936 would have required all state-run secure units to be kept between 65 and 85 degrees. However, the bill has been dramatically rewritten, exchanging that mandate with a study to see how much it would cost to actually reduce the air temperature.
Overall, just 29 Texas prisons provide air-conditioned living units, while another 75 facilities are without. Temperatures inside of jails and prisons at times can exceed 100 degrees. The heat index can reach as high as 150 degrees which can be deadly. A Columbia Law School climate study estimated that most inmates do not have air-conditioned units. Exposure to high heat alone can lead to increases in aggression, suicide, poor cognitive functioning, and overall poor mental health.
In 2011, ten people incarcerated in Texas prisons died from heat-related causes giving rise to a series of lawsuits resulting in the state agreeing to place permanent air conditioning amenities inside units, but now this has been put on hold to conduct further cost assessments.
After inmates at one unit sued over the heat, the state agreed to keep temperatures there below 88 degrees. The state estimated installing cooling units would cost upwards of $20 million. That number was later revised down to $11 million and then $4 million. However, there has been no movement on placing air conditioning units in prisons and jails.
Casey Phillips, President and Founder of Texas Prisons Air-Conditioning Advocates says “the fact that everyone in the Legislature is fully aware of the heat issue within the prisons means that every one of them should be held accountable if someone else ends up losing their life from the heat. It’s not just the inmates that are suffering, it’s the staff as well. This has got to change for everyone’s sake.”
Temporary measures being taken to provide inmates with additional water and ice, cooler showers, and minimizing outside work hours.
There is currently a rider in the state budget that will require jails and prisons to give the internal temperature logs to the Texas Legislature in an annual report. The report would also include a record of inmate complaints related to temperature, temperature-related deaths, and agency protocol used to manage the temperature. There is currently no data on the current daily temperature of Texas prisons and jails.
The proposed rider would still need to pass the Appropriations Committee and both the House and Senate to go into effect.