Texas: Prison Air Conditioning Needs Revisiting
There are, without a doubt, many tens of thousands of former and current Texas prisoners who would gladly room with the General in his preferred lodgings after spending one summer in a typical Texas prison.
Texas currently operates 102 prisons across a state covering more land than some European countries. It is smack in the geographic center of the traditionally hottest states in the country from California on the West coast to Georgia and the Carolinas in the East. Some of the commonalities these states share is a lack of air conditioning in their prisons, excessive summer heat and, from Texas to points east, those states are known as the Bible Belt.
One would think that a state with such a reference would practice forgiveness, love and compassion. Texas seems to be mired firmly in the Old Testament’s “eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth,” strict retributive doctrine where penology is concerned. Year after year, blisteringly hot summer after blisteringly hot summer, Texas prisoners suffer and die in red brick and concrete behemoths. They are actually lucky compared to prisoners living in tin buildings and dorms where temperatures have been known to approach 150 degrees at times, a full 15 degrees hotter than those recorded at Palestine, Texas’ Coffield Unit in 1998.
Some lawsuits challenging the lack of air conditioning in the hellishly hot Bible Belt states have succeeded, only to be struck down on appeal. The first of these suits to win and survive on appeal was the one brought by attorney Jeff Edwards and the Texas Civil Rights Project on behalf of prisoners at the Wallace Pack Unit. It was the first case where highly educated, credentialed and experienced experts testified to the adverse effects of excessive heat on people and the ineffectual measures taken to mitigate it by prisoncrats presented an unshakable, irreversible platform to support a judgment that even the ultraconservative U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed on review. See: Yates v. Collier, 868 F.3d 354 (5th Cir. 2017).
Among the many problems excessive heat aggravates are medical conditions. At this time, a pandemic is spanning the globe, taking millions of lives and leaving many survivors with permanent lung and organ damage. Elderly persons are at an elevated risk of contracting the COVID-19 virus. When COVID-19 was declared a national emergency in March, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice’s (TDCJ) census was at 138,500 prisoners, 79,552 of whom were eligible for parole release. [PLN, July 2020, p. 23]
On average, 20 percent of U.S. prisoners are elderly. [PLN, November 2019, p. 54] By the numbers, this means that 27,700 of TDCJ’s total census are elderly and 15,910 of its parole-eligible population are elderly and at an elevated risk of COVID-19 contagion.
Yet, according to a July 16, 2020 census report by the Dallas Morning News, TDCJ still has 126,000 prisoners, down by a paltry 12,500. Age and parole status at release times were not stated. Release procedures have been streamlined and simplified during the pandemic with releasees leaving from their assigned units instead of being bused to the Huntsville Unit or a designated regional release center. More prisoners could easily and quickly be released without straining the system.
Treating COVID-19 — with so many patients requiring intensive medical care and ventilator treatment — in many cases is proving to be a budget buster, especially in prisons. This does not even take into account the after-care expenses for many COVID-19 survivors.
Air conditioning prison units would be cheap by any comparison. It cost Texas over $7 million to fight the Pack lawsuit when it would have cost only $4 million to air condition the prison and be done with it. [PLN, February 2019, p. 45]
Experts have pointed out that excessive heat makes it more difficult for a person to fend off a virus like COVID-19, exponentially more so to deal with COVID-19 once a person contracts it. Dr. Catherine Toms pointed out, “When you have an infection [like COVID-19], that also makes you vulnerable to heat-related illnesses.”
The best way to deal with the ongoing pandemic is releasing the many parole-eligible prisoners that TDCJ’s has barely made a dent in so far. Depopulating would allow for plenty of social distancing and more effective mitigation measures. Further, air conditioning units would assist in air circulation and cooler temperatures to help keep COVID-19 at bay and mitigate it in afflicted prisoners.
So far, Texas, its parole board and prison system chooses to do neither. If the predicted, even more virulent second wave of COVID-19 arrives in tandem with the flu season, Texas may well find many of its 126,000 prisoners sitting on death row.