I read the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling in regard to air-conditioning for death-row inmates at Louisiana State Penitentiary with bewilderment. The Court agreed that the extreme temperatures constitute cruel and unusual punishment, but overturned a previous ruling by a lower court that would have compelled the state to install air-conditioning. Many in Texas were watching this case with great interest, especially in light of the heat-related deaths that spurred lawsuits against the Texas prison system. The families of those incarcerated in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice as well as correctional officers, who must work in these extreme conditions, hoped that the decision in Louisiana would result in safer conditions in Texas.
The 5th Circuit asserts that Louisiana may employ less expensive remedies like additional cold showers and access to ice. My personal experience is that these remedies do little to prevent heat-related illness or death, and fail to alleviate the effect of extreme heat on people with chronic health conditions. Even younger and healthier men and women suffer terribly during the summer in Texas prisons.
To deem a condition as inhumane without providing an adequate remedy essentially condones the cruelty.
I served almost six years in Texas prison for the crimes I committed when my addiction spun out of control. I spent the first 18 months at the Holliday Unit, a transfer facility in Huntsville. People can stay up to two years in these under-resourced units waiting for assignment to a regular institutional division unit. Many transfer facilities were constructed rapidly during the Texas prison building boom of the 90's. They house people in metal buildings that trap the heat, causing temperatures to soar into the triple digits. Two large industrial fans operate constantly, circulating the hot humid air like a furnace.
When I sat at the day-room tables, I'd need to put a towel down so as not to drip pools of sweat when I reached across the table. The officers on duty supervised the dorms from an air-conditioned picket, so they seldom remembered to open the ventilation shafts inside the dorms. Prison authorities decided to alleviate the heat by rolling large trash cans filled with iced water to each of the dormitories located on either side of a half-mile long concrete slab. By the time the trash cans reached us, the ice had long melted and the water had warmed to room temperature during its journey down the concrete slab.
Later, I was transferred to the Huntsville Unit, the oldest prison in Texas. I took anti-depressants at the time, and old-timers warned me to get off the meds before the summer months. My journey from addiction to criminality included several stops at psychiatric hospitals, so I was hesitant to defy my doctor's advice. In early June, I received a new cell assignment in Five Building. This ancient windowless monstrosity with giant metal exhaust pipes running along the sides of the building extends nearly the entire width of the unit, and was a separate unit reserved for the worst of the worst at one point in its dark history.
I reported to my new cell block on the bottom floor of this depressing place. I walked down the hard concrete floor past dimly lit cells with paint peeling from the masonry walls, and imagined myself inside a medieval dungeon. I learned that prison authorities moved everyone who took medications with heat warnings, especially people with mental illness, to these forgotten cells during the summer months. The Captain claimed that the blocks were cooler, and I learned quickly that this was untrue.
The absence of windows hindered circulation, and the external bricks conducted heat to the walls and bars like an oven. At 2 o'clock on a July morning I couldn't lean against the wall without a shirt to protect my back from the heat. Sleep was impossible. I'd get out of bed throughout the night, pour water in a bowl, and douse myself head to toe. Then I'd lay dripping beneath my fan until my body cooled down enough to sleep, only to wake up fifteen minutes later to repeat the process.
Aging men with heart conditions shuffled lethargically through the scorching days with ashen faces, often skipping meals and showers because of the super-human effort it took to walk the half flight of stairs to the exit of the building. The extreme temperatures hit diabetics and cardiac patients the hardest, and an ambulance frequented the unit several times per day during the summer months. I learned later that people most at risk of heat related health issues were placed in Five Building, because it was easier for medical personnel to carry men out on stretchers from this block verses the five-story windowed cell block near the front of the unit.
One summer, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice ordered the unit to conduct its biannual lock-down in July. These routine affairs require men to remain locked in their cells for one week, while officers search every workplace and living area for hidden contraband. When it came time to search a particular cell block, officers ordered the men to pack all of their belongings and carry them across the yard to the gym, where security staff waited to go through each item piece by piece.
One of the members of my small group in a chapel rehabilitative program endured this ordeal. He returned to his cell sweating from carrying 50 pounds of personal property across the unit under the late afternoon sun. Shortly later, he fell to the ground from a massive heart attack. The warden responded immediately, performing CPR until the ambulance arrived. Despite these efforts, the man died. Failing to learn its lesson, TDCJ ordered another lock-down the next summer, this time in August.
Texas spends $6 Billion every two years to operate its massive prison system. Installing air-conditioning will certainly bring a hefty cost to the state. It's important to put this issue into perspective. The state spends far more to provide health care to an aging prison population that no longer poses a risk to public safety. Moreover, the state incarcerates tens of thousands of men and women for non-violent offenses that should have been addressed through less costly treatment and intensive supervision. The cost of providing air-conditioning to prevent medical emergencies and death is dwarfed by the amount Texas wastes on ineffective criminal justice policies.
Despite its massive budget, TDCJ actually spends less per person than most states. Its response to the heat issue is entirely consistent with public attitudes toward criminal justice, which is to incapacitate criminals at the lowest cost. Our attitudes ignore an important point: nearly 95% of incarcerated individuals will return to their communities. They will once again become your neighbors. You'll sit next to them at church. Your children will share classrooms with their children. When we make decisions that promote rehabilitation in a safe and healthy environment and ensure that people have employment opportunities upon release, we improve the likelihood that formerly incarcerated individuals will return home as productive members of the community.
For more information about this topic, check out the amazing work of the UT School of Law's Human Right's Clinic: