Officials Literally “Blow Hot Air” to Mitigate Heat in Texas Prisons

As the summer comes to a close, prisoners across the state of Texas are breathing a sigh of relief for the fall reprieve from the extreme heat they have had to live with, day and night, for the past few months at 75 prisons operated by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) that lack air-conditioning in cellblocks.

Last summer, aging, heat-sensitive prisoners at the Wallace Pack Unit in Navasota, Texas, scored an unprecedented victory after a district judge issued a ruling, saying the department was deliberately indifferent and forcing officials to relocate medically vulnerable prisoners.

In their litigation, the prisoners cited 23 heat-related deaths that have occurred at department-run prisons since 1998 — 11 of those deaths occurring during a notorious heat wave in the summer of 2011. As Truthout has previously reported, staffers within the department’s Health Services Division tracked more than 200 heat-related illnesses in 2010 and 2011 across scores of units, but still neglected to introduce climate controls despite the widespread nature of the problem.

TDCJ has come under intensifying pressure since Judge Keith Ellison’s ruling, and this year, the department announced new procedures focused on preventing heat-related deaths and illnesses, including updated heat protocols and a new incident command system officials claim will ensure compliance. The new system is triggered by extreme heat warnings issued by the National Weather Service, according to a department spokesperson. Meanwhile, after shuffling more than 1,000 prisoners to air-conditioned jails and prisons, TDCJ installed temporary air-conditioning at Wallace Pack this year as they work to permanently air-condition the unit, pending legislative approval, after a recent settlement.

The department’s new policies build on its pre-existing heat mitigation measures, which were codified in 2016. The measures include providing prisoners with access to air-conditioned respite areas, cold showers, personal fans and extra ice water, and limiting outdoor work activity.

But several prisoners at department-run units in Texas wrote to Truthout over the summer to detail how the department’s heat mitigation measures aren’t being put into practice at some units. Even after the implementation of the department’s new incident command system and revised heat protocols, multiple prisoners said they were regularly denied access to respite areas and cool-down showers this summer, and alleged they were met with threats from prison guards when they asked for respite.

They also detailed uneven implementation of heat protocols, saying their units lacked ice water at times. They described faulty air-conditioning and ventilation systems, and said that the use of industrial and personal fans in cellblocks has been largely ineffectual during blazing temperatures.

Grievance complaints obtained by Truthout show prisoners have formally complained about a lack of staffing to ensure access to cool-down showers and respite areas for prisoners held in solitary confinement, otherwise known as administrative segregation (ad-seg); nonexistent or dirty ice water during extremely hot months; and indifference to a medical screening in which a prisoner was deemed heat sensitive.

One prisoner who says he was retaliated against because he asked for access to respite is Jason Walker, a prisoner at the Telford Unit in New Boston, Texas. In a letter, Walker described an incident in August in which he and another person were forced to stand in the heat on a sidewalk outside while waiting to enter the unit’s law library. After becoming heat exhausted, Walker says he asked to go to a respite area only 20 feet away but was denied. He then asked for the guard’s supervisor. “Instead of getting a supervisor,” he alleges, “I received threats of being handcuffed, gassed, beat up and thrown in lock up. I was told to stand in the heat or face punishment.”

Further, he elaborates in an article posted on the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee website,

“Efforts to coerce prisoners who request respite are widespread, and prisoners are often prevented from actually getting access to respite areas. Denied commissary purchases, threats of cell shakedowns, and disciplinary cases are the usual scare tactics. These methods have been very effective: prisoners are willing to sweat in the day room and suffer heat exhaustion rather than face cruel and unusual punishment. Indeed, this situation alone is cruel and unusual punishment.”

Walker also reported witnessing two prisoners who ended up in the unit’s infirmary in July for what was initially reported as “heat strokes.”

Further, prisoners held in solitary confinement at different units claimed that they have no realistic access to air-conditioned respite areas. “Never once in the 2 years ive been on [the Eastham Unit in Lovelady, Texas,] have i seen or heard of an Ad Seg inmate going to a Respite area. Sure, they have respite areas for population. But not for Ad-Seg. Not only do they not have the staff to escort us to wherever this would be, but there is no such area available to us,” wrote one prisoner there. He also claimed that administrative segregation prisoners do not receive cool-down showers and said he doesn’t drink the ice water because “it’s handled with absolutely no regards to sanitation,” and “put in big trash can size barrels with all amount of debris floating in it.” (Since the man wasn’t explicit in his letter about whether Truthout could use his name, it was withheld due to the potential for retaliation.)

At the McConnell Unit in Beeville, Texas, prisoner Keith Washington filed both a grievance and a lawsuit about a malfunctioning HVAC system. But senior US District Judge Hilda Tagle denied Washington’s request for an emergency preliminary injunction that would have forced TDCJ to fix what he says is an inoperable HVAC system in his section of administrative segregation.

“On several occasions I requested to be escorted to an air conditioned Respite Area and not one time was I afforded the opportunity,” Washington wrote Truthout. “I have a history of seizures which is worsened by the deadly extreme heat and both TDCJ and the University of Texas Medical Branch [which manages the department’s medical care] were well aware of the Risk to my health and safety by Forcing me to live in such a Super Heated environment.”

One of the department’s heat protocols involves medically examining prisoners to determine whether they have conditions or take medications that would make them particularly susceptible to heat. These “heat restrictions,” as they are called, are considered when officials make cell placement determinations. Washington alleged, however, that even though he was determined to be heat sensitive and had recently had a seizure, he was not moved to another cell before a particularly extreme heat wave hit the unit on July 21 and 22 of this year.

“These people are not following their own policies. And if you speak up or challenge them in Federal Court they have a manifold of reprisals they use to shut you up and these Federal Judges continue to ignore all the Red FLAGS here inside TDCJ,” Washington wrote. “Now it’s cooling off, but next summer this HVAC system still won’t be fixed.”

Indeed, deliberate indifference to such red flags have led to deaths at Washington’s unit before. The family of Quintero Devale Jones, a former prisoner at McConnell, is pressing a wrongful death lawsuit after Jones died during a July 2015 heat wave when guards there confiscated his asthma inhaler and then ignored his cries for help. Jones was not the first heat death at McConnell though: At least three other prisoners died of heat stroke there, one in 2004 and two in 2011.

“We heard a lot about the difference between policy and practice during an interim hearing this summer and that’s exactly what we see with the heat policy,” said Jennifer Erschabek, executive director of the Texas Inmate Families Association. “They put out a good heat policy, and instruct their wardens and their officers to follow this, but sometimes, as it filters down through the ranks, it doesn’t always happen.” Threats and retaliation, she says, are a pervasive part of the prison system, and aren’t exclusive to requests for respite or cool-down showers.

In a statement to Truthout, TDCJ spokesperson Jeremy Desel reiterated what the department’s heat mitigation measures are, saying prisoners, including those in ad-seg, may request access to respite areas and cool-down showers at any time, even if they are not feeling ill.

Further, he countered the idea that medical screenings aren’t being taken seriously, telling Truthout that all TDCJ prisoners “have now been screened for their heat risk by medical professionals,” and that prisoners at the highest risk levels have been moved to air-conditioned units.

However, prisoners’ accounts of being denied respite persist in the face of these claims. And Lance Lowry, a corrections staffer who formerly headed the union that represents TDCJ guards, told Truthout that under the current system, in which ad-seg prisoners must be personally escorted to respite by guards, it is likely that some of those prisoners’ requests for respite will indeed be disregarded.

“If you have an entire administrative segregation block decide that they need some cold air all at one time, of course their outcries are going to be ignored,” Lowry said. “[TDCJ is] playing more of a PR stunt than anything else.”

He told Truthout he has witnessed prison guards, who wear heavy Kevlar vests while on duty, succumb to the heat inside cellblocks that he described as “hot boxes.” Further, he says, the use of large, industrial box fans isn’t effective in extreme temperatures. “These giants box fans are kind of like [the department’s] PR campaign: They’re just blowing hot air.”

Keith Cole, one of the lead plaintiffs in the class-action Pack lawsuit, put Lowry’s security concerns a different way when he spoke to Truthout last year, saying that, “If offenders started using respite on a large scale, let’s say … 20 percent of the inmates wanted to go to respite, that would pretty much shut down the day-to-day operations of this unit.” He went on to detail how, as a result, prison officials “find low-visibility ways to discourage offenders from using respite,” including performing rectal internal core temperature checks on prisoners who ask to go to respite.

In fact, the uneven implementation of heat mitigation measures has become so well known to attorneys with the National Lawyers Guild’s Prisoners’ Legal Advocacy Network that the organization plans to address the issue directly in a legal questionnaire they will send to about 100 state prisoners in the coming weeks. In fact, says PLAN Supervising Attorney Stanley Holdorf, in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey last year, the organization “was contacted by dozens of prisoners who independently reported the failure of TDCJ to implement its newly announced heat mitigation measures.”

Moreover, he told Truthout, the organization “has received credible reports and affidavits signed under penalty of perjury that TDCJ is not implementing this policy. Prisoners report losing consciousness and experiencing physical symptoms consistent with heat stroke on dates when they have been deprived cooling showers.”

Yet, in spite of 17 other lawsuits that have hit the department over the heat issue, TDCJ officials insist that the expenses associated with such an effort are too burdensome and that their heat mitigation efforts are sufficient.

While arguing against Wallace Pack prisoners’ federal lawsuit last year, the department obtained an expert who told the court that the cost of providing air-conditioning there would come to more than $20 million. During an August interim hearing at the Texas Capitol last summer, however, TDCJ Executive Director Bryan Collier revised the estimated cost to install permanent air-conditioning at the Wallace Pack Unit to about $4 million. The department spent nearly $7 million fighting the prisoners’ lawsuit.

Lowry says that what the department needs to do is simple. “Just ask the Legislature to allocate so much money every session to keep upgrading their facilities,” he said. “If [the department] would have taken the initiative back in 2012, 2013 and air-conditioned several facilities at a time every session, their name wouldn’t have been drug through the mud. It wasn’t that hard.”

During the committee hearing, Collier indicated that the department has asked the Legislature for $2 million to install air-conditioning at the Hodge Unit in East Texas that incarcerates developmentally disabled prisoners. For human rights advocates, though, the request is not nearly enough.

Meanwhile, as prisoners across Texas wait for the next legislative session to begin in January, they’ll have a new worry as fall fades to winter: broken or inadequate heating.