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Wednesday, July 17, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

‘Shrouded in heat’: Hopes for safe prison temperatures fade with end of Texas legislative session

This year and not for the first time, a simple proposal to reduce extreme heat in Texas prisons died in the statehouse despite broad bipartisan support.

(CN) — Trenna Furrh will never forget the sweltering summer she spent at Lucile Plane State Jail in Texas, even if she has a hard time finding words to fully describe it.

The summer of 2018 was hell, the 68-year-old former inmate said, like being trapped in a hot car for months on end.

Heat is associated with increased violence — and on hot days at Plane, fights sometimes broke out over fans. Furrh says she didn’t participate: She was too old to be fighting other inmates, and besides, she thought the fans just blew hot air around.

Instead, in an effort to stay cool, Furrh took cold showers in her clothes. She sometimes avoided meals other than breakfast, which was served before metal tables in the mess hall got hot to the touch.

None of these techniques worked as much as Furrh would have hoped. “You are shrouded in heat,” she recalled in an interview. “I can’t express in words how horrible it is."

During the Texas legislative session this year, Furrh was part of a broad coalition hoping and pushing for new limits on dangerous heat in Texas prisons. There are currently no rules regulating extreme heat in these facilities, where temperatures in units without air-conditioning regularly climb over 100 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer. Much of Texas is also very humid, making extreme heat more dangerous.

Texas officials claim there have been no heat-related deaths in Texas prisons for more than a decade, but many prisoners say they've been denied aid in the heat and believe prison officials would cover up their death if heat killed them, a damning report found last year.

Advocates, including prison guards, say addressing extreme heat would save expenses from lawsuits and medical emergencies, reduce staff turnover and tamp down on violence. For others, it's just about dignity. "You feel more human" with AC, Furrh said. "You're not tortured with the heat."

This year, at least four bills in the Texas House took aim at extreme heat in Texas prisons. Prominent lawmakers from both parties supported the bills — but when the regular legislative session ended last month, every bill addressing Texas prison heat was dead in the water.

It was a familiar trend for Texas, which has for years failed to tackle extreme heat and other issues in its state prison system, one of the biggest in the country.

That trend continues even as the climate warms, the prison population ages and the costs of fighting prisoner lawsuits mount. In 2018, after a yearslong legal battle with prisoners, Texas prison officials agreed to install air-conditioning at one prison near Houston after a federal judge said it was "literally a life-and-death issue."

The efforts to ban extreme heat in Texas prisons were just one of many prison reforms to die in the Texas legislature this year. Among others were efforts to directly fund prison air-conditioning, rein in the use of solitary confinement and create new early release guidelines for terminally ill prisoners.

For Furrh, the failure of these bills confirmed a fact she already believed: Texas doesn't care about the people it locks up. If anything, we want them to suffer.

“I was very disappointed,” she said. “I wasn’t surprised.”

One of the most prominent efforts to ban prison heat this year came in the form of House Bill 1708. The one-page bill would have simply required Texas prisons to remain between 65 and 85 degrees Fahrenheit. Texas law has mandated this standard for county jails since at least 1994.

Terry Canales, a charismatic Democratic lawmaker from South Texas, authored the bill. In introducing it to the House Corrections Committee this year, Canales argued that "we don't even allow people to treat dogs like this."

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"It's time we stand up and give a damn," Canales said. The extreme heat made prisoners restless and angry and put "correctional officers in danger," he added. He urged his fellow lawmakers to go sit in a hot car and "see if your demeanor doesn't change."

Not a single person signed up to testify against Canales’ bill. Supporting it were former prisoners, prison guards, advocacy groups and Christian organizations.

Clifton Buchanan, a prison-guard union representative, stressed that this bill was "not just about inmates" and argued guards were "subjected to the same or worse heat conditions as the incarcerated." John Litzler, director at Texas Baptists Christian Life Commission, a public-policy group representing thousands of Texas churches, added that "the faith community is aware of this issue, and we urge you to resolve it."

“People are created in the image of God," Litzler told lawmakers. "They should be treated humanely [and] reasonably."

Amite Dominick, president of Texas Prisons Community Advocates, a nonprofit dedicated to improve the lives of prisoners, contrasted the ways extreme heat was treated differently inside and outside of prison.

Houston leads the nation in AC usage, she said — and yet around 22,500 prisoners at 13 state prisons in the Houston area do not have AC. Last summer, the North Texas city of Amarillo got so hot that officials issued warnings to residents. Prisoners at a nearby state facility were still trapped in the heat, “forced to flood their toilets [and] find some way to drink often times dirty water.”

Faced with testimony like this, the House Corrections Committee advanced the bill to the full House. It saw bipartisan support there, too, passing 112-32, with many Republican lawmakers supporting the bill. Two House Republicans — Jeff Leach, a Dallas-area representative, and Dustin Burrows, a representative from the Lubbock region — even signed on as authors.

HB 1708 next went to the Texas Senate Committee on Finance, where it waited in legislative purgatory until it eventually died with the end of the regular session in May. Joan Huffman, a Houston-area Republican state senator who chaired that committee, didn't respond to a request for comment on why HB 1708 never got a hearing. Nor did Senator Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa, the committee's Democratic vice-chair from South Texas.

For though close to the bill, the reason prison reforms never pass the Texas Senate isn't because lawmakers there oppose them. Rather, they just don't care enough, said Jessica Dickerson, a close friend of an incarcerated person and a board member at Texas Prisons Community Advocates.

"Usually, the trotted-out excuse is money," Dickerson said. She argued state officials weren't just ignoring prisoners but "the plight of their employees," the guards who are forced to work in these sweltering conditions.

"The [Texas] House has proven that they have more compassion than the Senate," she added.

No other country locks up more citizens than the United States. Texas far outpaces most other states in both the proportion and total number of incarcerated people, with around 122,000 prisoners at last count.

Of the 100 regular state prison units in Texas, only 31 have air-conditioning in all housing areas, while 55 partially lack it and 14 do not have it at all, according to a document provided by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, which runs state prisons.

Officially, the agency did not have a position on HB 1708. Still, critics say TDCJ has worked behind the scenes to thwart reform, including by fighting lawsuits by prisoners, vastly overestimating the costs associated with cooling units and obscuring the cause of inmate deaths.

Texas prisons have seen "zero heat-related deaths since 2012," a TDCJ spokesperson told Courthouse News. Critics dispute this figure, arguing the agency hides heat-related deaths by classifying them as incidents like heart attacks and strokes. In 2018, for example, a medical examiner determined that an inmate died from heat stroke. TDCJ argued against this finding and refused to classify it that way, claiming the inmate had air-conditioning and stressing the autopsy was "preliminary."

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Regardless, extreme heat in Texas prisons is so common that it has led to a policy known as "respite," in which inmates can request to wait out hot weather in a cooler part of the prison. TDCJ claims that respite areas are available "24
hours per day, seven days per week" and that inmates can stay there "as long as necessary."

In practice, a survey of more than 300 prisoners found that almost half were denied respite when they needed it. The report from Texas A&M University also found that prisoners were regularly denied cool showers and frequently passed out due to the heat.

Respite is a "nonsense policy" and "one of the most disturbing things" about the Texas prison system, said J. Carlee Purdum, a professor and researcher at Texas A&M and one of the authors of the report.

"We saw the same pattern over and over again: [Prisoners are] denied access to respite either because it's full, the staff are overwhelmed or because they had a bad relationship with whoever the officer was," Purdum said. She noted that many prisoners took medications that made them more vulnerable to extreme heat, and that extreme heat could exacerbate chronic conditions for both prisoners and guards.

When the worst does happen and a prisoner dies from heat, many Texas prisoners believe authorities would "hide that information" or "distort details about the circumstances of their deaths," the survey found.

In the survey, prisoners also shared their own "near-death experiences with heat." More than than 25 percent thought heat had killed someone they knew. One prisoner said he fainted four times in his cell but "no reports were filed and I received no medical attention." Another said he thought "many, many" people died from heat but "I don’t know their names." A third said there were "never so many heart attacks in the cooler times of year."

"The way [Texas prison officials] classify deaths is extremely limiting," Purdum concurred. Among other things, the study she helped author explored the link between summer heat and prison suicide. "Suicide attempts massively increase in the summers."

As a researcher at Texas A&M's Hazard Reduction & Recovery Center, Purdum uses tools typically used for analyzing events like natural disasters to try to understand what is unfolding in Texas prisons. The issue of extreme heat makes conditions "very unstable" both inside prisons and out, she said, as family members grapple with suffering loved ones and parolees come out with heat-related trauma and worsened health conditions.

"Texas should be leading on this issue," Purdum said, but officials "are failing." This wasn't about making prisoners comfortable, she said, but about preventing officials from using a "hazardous, unsafe, harmful environment to punish."

Texas prisoners recount stories of prison heat that are almost hard to believe, as temperatures climbed well into the 100's and other inmates passed out and had seizures around them.

One former inmate, Marci Simmons, said her girlfriend had seizures "every summer she was incarcerated" but never before or after. Her own bunkmate also had a seizure, she said, falling out of the top bunk and hitting her head on the concrete.

Simmons, who never dealt with seizures, said she'd wanted to take the top bed. "We kept asking to switch bunks," she said. "We kept getting shot down, and then that happened." Medics took the bunkmate away. Simmons wasn't sure what happened after that.

"I don't think she died," she said, "but we never saw her again."

Furrh never thought she would end up prison. “I'm not prison material,” the North Texas native said. Then she says injured her knee and got addicted to opiates. She was caught driving under the influence with her granddaughter in the car.

Furrh isn't proud of her mistakes. Still, like Represenative Canales, she put the issue in stark terms: Prisoners should be treated better than dogs.

“Shelter have air-conditioning for dogs. Not all dogs are nice," she said. "Not all people are nice, but all people in prison are human."

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Categories / Civil Rights, Government, Politics

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