Texas prisons sweltering as lawmakers refuse to mandate air conditioning inside

Texas is one of 13 states that does not require air conditioning inside its TDCJ units.

As temperatures outside are breaking records, people are suffering and dying inside Texas prisons.

KSAT Investigates has received dozens of emails from loved ones of inmates pleading for help.

Texas, though one of the hottest states, does not require air conditioning to be installed in its prisons.

Recently, a rally was held in Austin called “85 to Stay Alive.” It’s pushing lawmakers to allocate funds to cool Texas prisons.

When you drive up to the Torres Unit in Hondo, you can see the heat waves outside the barbed wire fencing.

It’s over 100 degrees outside, but it’s even hotter inside the walls of Texas prisons.

“He’s been through a lot in his life, choices he made. Yes, but this is inhumane. This is unacceptable. And, yes, I’m worried about him dying,” a woman who wanted to remain anonymous said.

She doesn’t want to be identified because she’s worried about the backlash her son, who is incarcerated, might face.

“It’s very physically and mentally exhausting,” she said.

She isn’t alone. Savannah Eldrige has a brother in prison in North Texas.

Eldrige said her brother tells her about the sweltering heat inside as well.

“I’m concerned that, not just my brother but many of the incarcerated men that we have -- there are people dying in their 30s,” Eldrige said.

So far this summer, eight inmates and 15 staffers have required medical attention for heat-related injuries since temperatures started rising. A representative with TDCJ says none were fatal.

But the Texas Tribune reported this month that at least nine prisoners have died since mid-June while heat indices were in the triple digits outside.

“We have, during the summer months, someone that has succumbed to cardiac arrest, that has succumbed to seizures or another emergency, and they did not have a history of that,” Eldridge said.

KSAT Investigates pulled recent death records of three inmates, all under the age of 50, without underlying conditions.

In each, the cause of death is listed as cardiac arrest.

“It would really be prudent to check the core body temperature, and that would be a better indicator of who actually did succumb to heat-related issues,” Eldrige explained.

Since 1998, at least 20 TDCJ prisoners across Texas have died of hyperthermia or heat stroke, according to TDCJ data.

In 2011, 10 deaths resulted in lawsuits filed by family members.

But just how hot is it inside those walls?

Texas A&M University researchers Carlee Purdum and Benita Dixon set out to find out.

“You have a temperature that’s taken in one space every day,” said Purdum, an assistant research professor with the Hazard Reduction and Recovery Center. “What we need are multiple temperature points throughout the facility, and it’s difficult for us to get access to that kind of data.”

They collected available TDCJ data and surveys from inmates from 2018 to 2020 and found that temperatures regularly reached 110 degrees inside prisons and peaked at 149 degrees in at least one unit.

“We had one individual say during the hottest part of the day, ‘I feel dizzy, see stars and feel like I’m going to vomit in my hands and feet swell, making my use of limbs limited,’” said Dixon, an assistant professor with the School of Public Health.

In 2018, it was made a priority to add air-conditioned beds and respite areas where prisoners can get access to cooler temperatures for 10 to 15 minutes at a time.

“Incarcerated people are describing the same thing across all of the units we see. The same pattern is that they’re frequently denied access,” Purdum said.

The Texas House and Senate reached a deal on a $321.2 billion two-year spending plan in May.

With Texas having its largest surplus in the budget, lawmakers are giving the Texas Department of Criminal Justice an additional $85.7 million in 2024. That’s on top of the $4 billion for its regular budget.

A representative with TDCJ initially confirmed that money won’t go towards cooling the temperatures inside.

The director of TDCJ communication, Amanda Hernandez, wrote in an email Thursday “TDCJ received a historic infusion of funding for major repair and improvement projects at facilities. The Legislature provided approximately $174 million ($89 million in Article 5 and $85 million in Article 9) above our base budget for those projects like roof repairs, security fencing and lighting, fire alarms, wastewater improvements, and adding additional air-conditioned beds within the system. The funding will make for significant improvements in a number of areas across the system and we are very appreciative of the investment in TDCJ.”

Hernandez emailed again later and amended her original statement writing “I am also able to now confirm that all $85M will go to air conditioning.”

She also confirmed the decision was made when the money was allocated by the legislature and it means air conditioning will be installed in units currently without air conditioning or that are just partially cooled.

KSAT Investigates asked TDCJ to sit down with us and speak about the heat in Texas prisons. Hernandez emailed back saying, “We aren’t doing interviews about this.”

When pressed as to why, she said they were answering questions via email.

Hernandez explained they’re prioritizing cooling beds, adding 9,459 beds between Fiscal Years 2018 and 2023.

With over 100,000 incarcerated people in TDCJ prisons right now and only a third of Texas prisons with full air conditioning, tens of thousands are left to suffer in the brutal heat.

“Do you know that the dog pounds even have air conditioner? But the state of Texas prisons don’t. That’s pretty sick,” said the woman whose son is incarcerated.

There have been proposed legislative changes for years. This past legislative session, Rep. Terry Canales out of Hidalgo County proposed House Bill 1708, which would impose temperature requirements inside Texas prisons, but the bill didn’t make it out of committee.

However, Canales has made several pointed tweets at Governor Greg Abbott about the living conditions.

About the Authors:

Leigh Waldman is a news reporter at KSAT 12. She joined the station in 2021. Leigh comes to San Antonio from the Midwest after spending time at a station in Omaha, NE. After two winters there, she knew it was time to come home to Texas. When Leigh is not at work, she enjoys eating, playing with her dogs and spending time with family.

Dale Keller is senior news photographer at KSAT-12.