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Texas House budgets $545 million for prison air conditioning. The Senate hasn’t offered anything.

By Jolie McCullough, The Texas Tribune

Texas House budgets $545 million for prison air conditioning. The Senate hasn’t offered anything.” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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The Texas House last week committed to spend $545 million to install air conditioning in many of the state’s dangerously hot prisons.

It’s a historic win for prison rights’ advocates, who have long fought to cool prisons in a state where the relentless Texas heat has baked prisoners to death, likely contributed to severe staff shortages and cost taxpayers millions of dollars in wrongful death and civil rights lawsuits. More than two-thirds of Texas’ 100 prisons don’t have air conditioning in most living areas, forcing thousands of prison officers and tens of thousands of prisoners to work and live in stifling temperatures.

But getting the funds included in the final House budget proposal is only half the battle. On the other side of the state Capitol, the more conservative Senate has not set aside any money to install prison air conditioning from the staggering $32.7 billion in extra funds the Legislature has to work with this year.

A Senate bill that would require prisons be kept between 65 and 85 degrees, which is already law for local jails, has not yet had a hearing. An identical bill in the Republican-led House was voted out of committee unanimously.

“It’s unfortunate that this battle is this difficult,” said state Rep. Terry Canales, an Edinburg Democrat who is leading the House bill and whose measure to cool prisons passed out of the House in 2021 without a hearing in the Senate. “It’s inhumane what we’re doing.”

Canales said he planned to talk to senators this week seeking compromise. He placed the responsibility for the funding’s final outcome squarely on the shoulders of Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, the leader of the Senate, who alone decides if and when to move legislation in his chamber.

“If the lieutenant governor allows it, he does it. If not, people continue to roast alive,” Canales said.

Patrick did not respond to questions about the proposed funding. Nor did state Sen. Joan Huffman, the Republican chair of the powerful Senate Finance Committee.

Every summer, as temperatures regularly soar well into triple digits, prisoners and officers are cramped inside concrete and steel buildings without ventilation, save windows broken out of desperation and fans that blow the hot air. Before recently, it wasn’t uncommon for prisoners to drop dead, with at least 10 Texas prisoners dying of heat stroke during the sweltering summer of 2011, according to court records.

Facing a handful of wrongful death challenges and an expensive class-action lawsuit at a geriatric prison, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice took action. After years of court battles, the prison agency agreed to install air conditioning at the geriatric prison and shuffled men and women around to put many of its sick or elderly prisoners into cooler housing.

The prison agency also made some changes before the court agreement, including installing large fans in housing areas and providing small personal fans to prisoners. Agency policy states prisoners are also meant to have access to unlimited ice water and visits to cooled areas during extreme temperatures, though many prisoners have reported those policies are not often followed.

TDCJ officials have repeatedly said that the agency’s protocols to mitigate the heat are working, citing no new heat stroke deaths since 2012. (Prison officials disregard a July 2018 death, in which a medical examiner ruled a prisoner died of heat stroke, saying they believe the cause of death is unclear.)

But heat deaths are likely undercounted, as scientists have found extreme heat is often overlooked as a cause of death. And with climate change expected to bring even hotter temperatures, prisoners, prison rights advocates and officer unions have desperately called the state to action for years.

“This bill is not just about inmates. It’s about the hard working men and women and staff, many of whom work 16 to 24 hours a day, six days a week,” said Clifton Buchanan, a former corrections officer and deputy director of Texas Correctional Employees Council, at a legislative hearing on Canales’ bill last month.

“Working conditions in extreme heat are intolerable, especially wearing a stab-proof vest, while making rounds going up and down stairs,” he added, noting countless employees quit during the unbearable summer months.

This year, with a large surplus in the Legislature’s checkbook, the House responded to the advocates’ call. In its two main budget bills, funding current projects and those for the next two years, state representatives would put $545 million into cooling 46 out of 73 prisons that don’t yet have air conditioning in all prisoner housing areas.

The House said it intended to funnel more money in additional legislative sessions to follow a four-phase plan that would cool all prisons by 2031. The plan was developed by TDCJ after House Speaker Dade Phelan asked his appropriations committee in 2021 to make funding recommendations for an incremental installation of air conditioning in prisons.

The first and second phases are included in the current House budget proposals. Phase one would cool 16 facilities by 2025, focusing on transfer facilities, which hold newly sentenced prisoners, and those with large special needs populations. Phase two would put air conditioning in another 30 facilities by 2027, focusing on larger prisons built in the 1980s and 1990s.

In a draft of the plan received last year by The Texas Tribune, TDCJ officials said prioritizing newer facilities built with the same prototype will allow more beds to be cooled faster. The two final phases, which are not included in the House funding this legislative session, would cool the remaining 27 prisons.

Amite Dominick, president of Texas Prisons Community Advocates, said it felt good that the House was doing something, but that with a surplus budget, she had hoped lawmakers would put up the money to install air conditioning in all prisons this session.

“On the one hand, I’m happy. On the other hand, I’m thinking of the people who will suffer or die over the next four bienniums,” Dominick said. “This has gone on for decades, and we’re still dragging this along and kicking that can.”

As far as the Senate goes, she said, it is very discouraging.

“I’m disappointed with our leadership, with our governor and lieutenant governor for not moving to fix this problem,” she said.

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