The Texas Legislature ended their session in May without investing in air conditioning for sweltering Texas prisons, which boosts the chances this year of incarcerated people dying under state oversight.
Thanks to federal covid offsetting measures and record gas prices, the state of Texas walked away with an extra $32.7 billion in the bank to spend on the state’s upcoming two-year budget. State comptroller Glenn Hegar said Texans can thank painful national energy spikes for inflating Texas coffers. Texas is an oil-producing state that taxes oil and gas production within its borders, so a portion of high fuel prices hurting businesses and families over the last few years went to Texas. Despite being flush with cash, lawmakers opted to up the death count for prisoners under their care in record high heat.
Texas prisons are dangerously hot, with summer heat routinely baking incarcerated family members to death. One report found 14 prisoners cooked to death between 2007 and 2015. Another study claims an average of 14 heat-related deaths per year occurred between 2001 to 2019. Heat death among inmates can be difficult to diagnose because symptoms can hide beneath other, less likely causes. The Journal of Insurance Medicine argues that criteria for diagnosing heat stroke “may be minimal and are non-specific, particularly if the survival interval is short.” The National Association of Medical Examiners (NAME) agrees, pointing out that an accurate diagnosis can be difficult without considering “a history of exposure to a hot environment” and ‘‘reasonable exclusion of other causes.”
This makes deliberately undercounting the number of heat-related deaths in Texas prisons easy, and potentially widespread because more than two-thirds of Texas prisons have no air conditioning in most living areas.
Despite this, lawmakers are brazenly indifferent to prisoner health. Texas Department of Criminal Justice Executive Director Bryan Collier, for example, recently told committee members that costs to install air conditioning at the Wallace Pack Unit near College Station was $4 million. However, the state spent nearly twice that much, more than $7 million, fighting a lawsuit demanding Texas install air conditioning in that very same prison.
The court in that case confirmed that “the heat index outside of the Pack Unit often exceeds 88 degrees Fahrenheit for prolonged periods from approximately April 15 through October 30 each year,” and ordered officials to update cooling and alleviate unconstitutional conditions.
A budget proposal near the end of the Texas 2023 session gave the Texas Department of Criminal Justice an additional $85.7 million for “deferred maintenance projects” this year. It likely included one-time investments in air-conditioning, but Texas senators refused to allocate the money. They were willing to allocate $400 million for the renovation of the Alamo, however, a historic fort and mission that became a pro-slavery, anglo call-to-war against abolitionist Mexican forces.
Amite Dominick, president and founder of Texas Prisons Air-Conditioning Advocates accused legislators of monstrous apathy.
“They didn’t pass funding this year even though this was the best time to do it because they had excess money,” Dominick told Black Girl Times. “But what about this summer? What about right now? These legislators are doing nothing for the incarcerated citizens in their districts who are being tortured in this extreme heat. They’re not doing anything for the (prison staff) either. We’re seeing assaults rising already. We know violence rises with heat, and prisons are no exception to that rule.”
Heat and violence are contributing to unsustainable turnover rates at Texas prisons. Understaffing problems are causing mandatory overtime and safety issues across the nation, with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis recently activating National Guard members to help prison staff fill holes. But Texas is in a class of its own; the Texas Department of Criminal Justice says more than a quarter of 23,600 prison security jobs are unfilled. In rural Anderson County, for example, home of five prison facilities, the vacancy rate is almost 50%. States like Texas are having to raise salaries, reduce the minimum age requirement, and recruit right out of high school to find guards to staff their ovens.
Many prisoners are not in prison for violent crimes, however, and critics argue the humanity of cooking to death purse snatchers, repeat petty offenders and meth chemists. The state of Texas is also rapidly cultivating a reputation for bungling prosecutions and sentencing innocent victims to years of imprisonment. Texas often leads the nation in prisoner exoneration, further clouding arguments that state prisoners are deserving of death and torture. The National Registry of Exonerations recorded Texas with the highest number of exonerations in 2017 and 2016. The 2016 report showed Texas representing 58 of that year’s 166 total exonerations.
A companion report revealed African-Americans to be disproportionately represented in the number of people exonerated in the U.S. in the past 28 years, comprising 50 percent of murder exonerees, 59 percent of sexual assault exonerees and 55 percent of drug crime exonerees. That same report noted African American prisoners who were convicted of murder were about 50 percent more likely to be innocent than other convicted murderers. It also revealed that innocent Black people are about 12 times more likely to be convicted of drug crimes than innocent white people. Sixty-two percent of people exonerated for drug crimes in Houston’s Harris County in 2016 were African American.
African Americans make up only 20 percent of the Harris County population, however.