This is no way to treat animals, or humans

Inmates shuffle past new fans in the Darrington prison's main hallway on a hot July day. Photo by Jolie McCullough / The Texas Tribune

Anyone who did this to their dog would be arrested. Yet when someone locks a human being in inescapable, rising heat, no one is held accountable.

It wouldn’t be summer without reports of people being cuffed and charged for leaving their dogs inside hot, locked cars. A Wesleyan University professor, a concertgoer and a woman who locked her dog in her white Mercedes are just some of the new perps who are feeling the heat for leaving a living creature to die in the hot weather.

It also wouldn’t be summer if the issue of air conditioning in Texas correctional facilities didn’t surface. Since 1998, 22 inmates have died from heat-induced illness. The temperature reached 100 degrees during 13 days in 2016, and was between 90 and 99 degrees on 55 days. That means that the heat index was higher inside the facilities.

I know firsthand what it’s like to be locked inside a prison with no air conditioning because it happened to me six years in a row. Every summer I spent as an inmate at York Correctional Institution, there was at least one instance of the air conditioning not working. As a maximum security facility, buildings aren’t equipped with windows that open or ways to get outside for air.

Not only does being trapped in extreme heat torture your body; it also affects your mind. Because it’s difficult to breathe, you spend most of your energy deciding whether you’re dying or not. Your sole focus is on reaching the next minute of your life, not the rehabilitation needed for your far-off future.

And I was in Connecticut where it is at least 20 degrees cooler than Texas.

On Wednesday, U.S. District Judge Keith Ellison issued a preliminary injunction that requires the Texas Department of Criminal Justice to move about 500 “heat-sensitive” inmates at the Pack Unit into cooler confines.

At least Judge Ellison saw the humanity in these incarcerated people. From the chintziness of the TDCJ, which won’t spend as little as $100,000 on A/C (the cost according to one expert), to people in society at large who seem not to care that men and women are being tortured and killed in Texas prisons, it’s too bad Texas inmates can’t feel the chill of cold hearts.

But there’s more to the lack of air-conditioning than just being inhumane.

As part of its leadership in criminal justice reform, the state of Texas has expanded rehabilitative opportunities in very effective ways; the inmate population dropped 5 percent in just five years. TDCJ  runs eleven separate treatment programs and offers expanded services for inmates to achieve its goals and to be “smart on crime.”

But these programs become useless when inmates are housed in such devastating conditions. Inmates facing that type of heat can’t pay attention to what they’re doing. As long as this heat is allowed to affect inmates in this way, little to no rehabilitation is taking place.

Even though authorities disagree what air conditioning would cost, whatever the price tag is, it would be a one-time expenditure and would save money in the long run.

More than $111,284,129 will be spent on rehabilitative services in Texas for the 2017-18 fiscal year. Without investing in air-conditioning, much of that taxpayer money is wasted. It makes fiscal sense to install cooling systems.

The consequences of failing to cool Texas prisons doesn’t just fall on the inmates. It also falls on taxpayers whose money gets wasted when the TDCJ incapacitates its wards with uncontrolled temperatures before they can engage in rehabilitative programming. And it falls on the general public when prisoners return to society less than fully reformed.

Those who face the fewest consequences are state decision-makers who allow these counterproductive conditions to persist and endanger inmates and the progress they are making inside.

Perhaps if wardens were held responsible the same way dog owners are for leaving living beings in their care in dangerously hot areas, then perhaps they’d make sure that lifesaving equipment was installed.

Of course, arresting prison staff, corrections bureaucrats and state leaders would be extreme — as extreme as the heat that is baking these human beings. But if they were personally fined for these conditions, or were suspended without pay, then they would feel the heat too — and take initiative to change what’s wrong inside Texas prisons.

It’s not always the inmates who need correcting.

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