In Texas prisons, which are some of the hottest in the country, 19 convicts have died of heat-related illnesses since 1988, according to prison reports. However, that number might be too low. A new report generated by the Texas Civil Rights Project says that 14 have died since just 2007.
Regardless of which numbers are correct, the fact remains that Texas prisons are hot enough to be dangerous. As a result, the report, directed by University of Texas School of Law Human Rights Clinic director Ariel Dulitzky, found that the excessive heat constituted “cruel and unusual punishment” and is a violation of human rights.
“Every year, like clockwork, the incredible heat in Texas prisons is killing people,” notes Brian McGiverin, an attorney with the Texas Civil Rights Project.
“We say that this is inhuman, degrading treatment, but it’s a question of severity,” Dulitzky said. “So we feel that this is close to torture, but we don’t call this torture.”
Currently, Texas prisons do not have air conditioning (other than hospitals, psychiatric facilities, wardens’ offices, and armories) and the only option inmates have for cooling down is fans that they can buy for $22.50. But the report says that price, is quite prohibitive and cites a CDC study that says fans are not effective at preventing heat stroke when temperatures rise above 85 degrees with 35% humidity.
“Heat stroke, unlike almost any other illness that people die from in prison, is completely preventable. All you need to do is lower the temperature,” said attorney Jeff Edwards, who represented the families of eight inmates who died during the sweltering summers of 2011 and 2012. “And they’ve chosen not to do that.”
“Down in Texas, an enclosed building could easily reach 120 degrees, and if you don’t have air conditioning, the heat just blows around,” explains Jeff Vitt, Vice President of Vitt Heating and Air Conditioning. “In a prison where there are a concentrated number of people, it’s probably even worse.”
At least for now, officials are sticking to the regulations they have in place regarding heat.
“We have had very good success over the long term with respect to our heat protocols; again they are extensive and have been in place for a number of years,” said Brad Livingston, Texas Department of Criminal Justice executive director. He had not yet reviewed the report at that time.
The report does not mention specific solutions, though it is easy to infer that installing air conditioning would be the proper choice. It is clear, however, in saying that current measures of preventing heat-related illnesses are not sufficient.
“What they’ve done is deliver a Gatorade jug of water two to three times a day to 50 plus men. That is not acceptable,” argued Edwards. “Every citizen in Texas would say you know what yes, sure, if you do the crime, do the time. But you ought to be able to do it in a way that you live.”