Texas inmates are being ‘cooked to death’ in extreme heat, complaint alleges

Telford prison on Tuesday, March 21, 2017, in New Boston. (Shelby Knowles For The Texas Tribune, Shelby Knowles For The Texas Tribune)

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April signals the beginning of blistering heat for much of Texas. And while the summer heat is uncomfortable for many, it can be deadly for the people incarcerated in Texas’ prison system where temperatures regularly reach triple digits.

With another sweltering summer likely ahead, prison rights advocates on Monday filed a complaint against Texas Department of Criminal Justice executive director Bryan Collier, arguing that the lack of air conditioning in the majority of Texas prisons amounts to cruel and unusual punishment.

The filing came from four nonprofit organizations who are joining a lawsuit originally filed last August by Bernie Tiede, an inmate who suffered a medical crisis after being housed in a Huntsville cell that reached temperatures exceeding 110 degrees. Tiede, a well-known offender whose 1996 murder of a wealthy widow inspired the film “Bernie,” was moved to an air-conditioned cell following a court order but he’s not guaranteed to stay there this year.

Monday’s filing expands the plaintiffs to include every inmate incarcerated in uncooled Texas prisons, which have led to the deaths of dozens of Texas inmates and cost the state millions of dollars as it fights wrongful death and civil rights lawsuits.

The plaintiffs ask that an Austin federal judge declare the state’s prison policy unconstitutional and require that prisons be kept under 85 degrees Fahrenheit. Texas jails are already required to keep facilities cooler than 85 degrees, and federal prisons in Texas have a 76 degree maximum.

Between June and August last year, the average temperature was 85.3 degrees — the second hottest on record behind 2011. And this year does not look to be much cooler. The most recent winter season ranked warmest on record for the contiguous U.S., according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Scientists have found that climate change has resulted in more severe and longer lasting heat waves. In the last decade, Texas has experienced over 1,000 days of record-breaking heat, compared to a normal decade.

In the hot summer months, those concrete and metal cells can reach over 130 degrees, formerly incarcerated Texans said during a Monday press conference. Legal representatives hope to prove those conditions are unconstitutional.

“What is truly infuriating is the failure to acknowledge that everyone in the system —all 130,000 prisoners— are at direct risk of being impacted by something that has a simple solution that has been around since the 1930s, and that is air conditioning,” attorney Jeff Edwards told reporters. Edwards was the lead attorney in a 2014 prison rights case that cited the nearly two dozen Texas prison inmates who died from heat stroke over the previous two decades. That case culminated in a settlement, where TDCJ agreed to install air conditioning at the Wallace Pack Unit near College Station.

About two thirds of the inmates housed across TDCJ’s facilities live in areas without air conditioning. Advocates and inmates’ families have long fought to cool prisons in a state where summer temperatures routinely exceed triple digits and pose dangerous conditions to inmates and correctional officers.

Although the state has not reported a heat-related death since 2012, researchers and inmates’ families dispute those statistics. A 2022 study found that 14 prison deaths per year were associated with heat. Last year, a Texas Tribune analysis found that at least 41 people had died in uncooled prisons during the state’s record-breaking heat wave.

Health problems that have been linked to excessive heat include renal diseases, cardiovascular mortality, respiratory illnesses and suicides, Julie Skarha, a epidemiology researcher at Brown University who authored the 2022 study, told reporters on Monday.

Skarha said while death certificates may not list heat strokes — a condition when the body can no longer control its temperature— as the official cause of death, her research indicates that many prisoners have died from heat-related causes.

“Heat deaths haven’t magically stopped,” the lawsuit states. “TDCJ has simply stopped reporting or admitting them after the multiple wrongful death lawsuits and national news coverage.”

TDCJ spokesperson Amanda Hernandez declined to comment on the lawsuit, saying the agency does not comment on pending litigation. But she emphasized that the department has been adding more air conditioning units since 2018.

“Each year we’ve been working to add cool beds, and we’ll continue to do so,” she said.

She also pointed to the departments’ “enhanced heating protocols” which are activated from April to October and include providing ice water to inmates and allowing them to purchase fans and cooling towels from the commissary.

Lawyers argue that these mitigation tactics are insufficient to combat the state’s sweltering temperatures. To survive the heat, incarcerated people report having to flood their toilets or sinks and lie down in the water on the cell floor to try to cool their bodies, the lawsuit states.

“This isn’t an unpredictable event,” said attorney Erica Grossman, who is one of the lawyers representing the plaintiffs. “It gets hot every summer, and much like every other building in Texas —including buildings that have animals — we cool the building.”

TDCJ staff who work in the facilities are similarly impacted by the heat, said Michele Deitch, a senior lecturer at the University of Texas at Austin's School of Law and LBJ School. The excessive heat invades all aspects of life in prisons: Staff must do physical work in heavy uniforms in the heat; the heat results in more violence among those incarcerated; and it leads to more use of force against prisoners, she said.

The TDCJ states on their heat mitigation protocols that staff are “encouraged to increase their water intake” during the hot summer month and are allowed to wear cooling towels and dri-fit compression shirts.

New research Skarha has conducted found that the number of assaults that occur in prisons without air conditioning increased as much as five times during summer months compared to that number in climate-controlled facilities.

Prison rights advocates say the state could easily fund air conditioning units across its prisons but has simply been unwilling to do so. During the last legislative session —when the state recorded a record surplus— the House proposed spending $545 million to install air-conditioning in most of the prison facilities lacking it. But the final budget did not include any money dedicated to air conditioning.

The House also passed a bill requiring prisons to be kept between 65 and 85 degrees, which is required already in jails and most federal facilities. But the bill failed in the more conservative Senate.

“We have the resources. We just seem to not have the compassion to do it,” Rep. Carl Sherman, D-DeSoto, said during the press conference. Sherman was one of the authors of the bill that would have regulated prison temperatures.

The Legislature did allocate approximately $85 million for “additional deferred maintenance projects,” in Texas prisons, and TDCJ is using that money to pay for air conditioning units. Hernandez estimated that those dollars will provide air conditioning for an estimated 10,000 inmates.

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