Texas should cool its prisons

Photo by Jolie McCullough / The Texas Tribune

Texas is very hot in the summer, and so are Texas prisons. This is a fact, and has been a fact since the inception of the Texas prison system in 1848.

On appeal from Texas in 2017, the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a lower court ruling which certified the groups of Wallace Pack Unit prisoners who could bring suit against the state. The 5th Circuit also affirmed the district court’s finding that the Texas Department of Criminal Justice’s heat mitigation measures were not effective in bringing the risk of serious harm below the constitutional baseline. The 5th Circuit includes Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas. Many contend that it is the most conservative federal appellate court in the country. All three of those states are facing or have faced prison heat litigation. Although they have not ruled that air conditioning is a constitutional right, the judges on the 5th Circuit have ruled that the heat conditions in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas do not meet minimal constitutional standards.

Writing the opinion for the panel, Judge Jennifer Walker Elrod, a George W. Bush appointee, summed up the legacy of this particular issue: “This appeal presents yet another chapter in a long saga of challenges to conditions of confinement in prisons throughout this circuit.” This 5th Circuit ruling opened the door for an injunctive ruling from federal Judge Keith Ellison, who directed TDCJ to lower the temperature in the housing areas of medically heat-sensitive prisoners. Ellison directed TDCJ to install window screens that facilitate air flow and block insects. Additionally, he ordered TDCJ to implement a heat wave policy for its Pack Unit. 

Eventually, Texas settled the Pack Unit case early in 2018. A centerpiece of the settlement was to cool the facility’s housing areas, which reportedly had temperature levels over 100 degrees. TDCJ agreed to move inmates who were medically sensitive to heat to prison units with air-conditioned beds. Some prisoners died due to these extreme heat conditions, and several of their family members won monetary settlements.

Unless more definitive guidance comes from our state’s policymakers, the Pack case is only one event that will connect the past and future. Whether in response to escalating crime, job creation and/or an earlier round of litigation in the early 1990s, the Legislature increased TDCJ’s annual budget to $2.2 billion in 1995, from $700 million in 1990. In 1994, the prison system comprised 65 units and incarcerated approximately 72,000 convicted felons. In less than two years, TDCJ would see its incarcerated population nearly double to 146,000 and number of units increase to 108. This was a pretty impressive building program, funded with $2 billion of debt.

With legislative guidance, TDCJ built these prison units. Except for the administrative offices, libraries, educational classrooms and medical clinics, the housing areas in these facilities do not have climate-control features. Currently, TDCJ has an estimated 32,000 air-conditioned beds.

TDCJ’s current executive leadership team was not in charge in the 1990s. Many of them were young correctional officers. Therefore, no one asked them for advice on how many facilities to build and how to equip these units. In fact, this group of correctional executives has implemented impressive reforms that have resulted in a decrease in the prison population, the closure of several units and a declining recidivism rate. They take seriously their constitutional mandate that prohibits cruel and unusual punishment. TDCJ has requested $2 million in the 2020-21 budget proposal to install air conditioning at the Hodge Unit in Rusk, which incarcerates geriatric and medically-fragile prisoners. This will add several hundred more air-conditioned beds to the system.

This session, many in the Legislature understand the gravity of the situation. They’ve proposed budget provisions and legislation requiring TDCJ to monitor temperatures and maintain specific temperature ranges.

Almost three decades ago, TDCJ responded to clear legislative guidance and embarked on a massive prison expansion. The climate of Texas is what it is — hot. The conservative 5th Circuit has ruled on the constitutionality of these conditions short of requiring air conditioning. The prison population is aging and the number of people in these facilities with mental health conditions is increasing. Now, TDCJ needs the mechanical discretion and legislative guidance to control the climate in these facilities. After all, when the plaintiffs file lawsuits, they list the TDCJ executive director as a defendant.

James White

State Representative