From time to time, investigative news reports surface describing the sordid details of life behind bars. The stories talk about the poor quality of the food, the antiquated jail cells, and the substandard living conditions most criminal offenders face. Something most people don’t think about, however, is climate control. That is, how are prisons heated during the winter, and are jail cells air conditioned in the summer?
A spate of recent articles from a number of nationally-recognized news publications have reported on air conditioning in prisons. An article written in The Texas Tribune indicates that over 75% of prisons in Texas do not have air cooling systems.
One reason why most Texas prisons do not have central air is that most of the penitentiaries in the state are old, and renovating them would be very costly. The Darrington Unit, for example, a prison located 30 miles due south of Houston, was constructed in 1917. According to reports, the prison looks the same today as it did when it was built 100 years ago.
Instead of an air cooling units, The Darrington Unit relies on huge fans to cool the inmates during the summer, when temperatures regularly exceed 100 degrees Fahrenheit.
Texas Inmates Bring Air Conditioning Case to Court
The lack of central air in Texas prisons has prompted prisoners from around the state to come together and issue a class action lawsuit against the state. The lawsuit, which argues that not providing air conditioning during the summer months constitutes cruel and unusual punishment, is currently making its way through the Texas court system.
In July, a district judge in Houston agreed with the class action suit, ordering that the Texas Department of Justice at least provide air conditioning to medically at-risk inmates by the beginning of August.
In his ruling, Judge Keith Ellison wrote, “Plaintiffs face a substantial risk of serious harm from the sweltering Texas heat.” Ellison also indicated that the Texas Department of Justice has acted indifferently to mitigating potential health-related risks for their inmates.
Deaths and Health Issues for Texas Inmates
The class action lawsuit created by the prisoners indicates that there have been 23 heat-related deaths in state prisons since 1998. During that same period of time, there have been hundreds of heat-related illnesses suffered by inmates in the Texas prison system.
Medical professionals who support the lawsuit argue that people suffering from heart disease, obesity, or diabetes are at greater risk of health complications when they are subjected to living in extreme heat. Doctors also suggest that people taking anti-psychotic drugs or other medications face an increased risk of health complications when subjected to heat and humidity for extended periods of time.
Other supporters of the lawsuit point to the fact that guards and prison staff are also suffering in the heat of these prisons, despite not breaking the law.
Ultimately, Judge Ellison decided to rule in favor of at-risk prisoners, awarding them access to air conditioning. The Texas Department of Justice is currently appealing Judge Ellison’s ruling.