Editorial other views

The following editorial published in the Houston Chronicle on May 18:

Texans will soon be asking ourselves the familiar questions as spring inches toward summer: How long can we put off turning on the air conditioner before our homes become insufferable?

But for tens of thousands of Texans serving time in scores of state prisons, the cool breath of centralized air is the stuff of fantasy, no matter how hot it gets. For them, there’s but one option as the mercury rises into triple digits: Sweat it out.

“People ask me what it’s like to live inside a prison cell or dorm with no air conditioning,” former inmate Jennifer Toon told the board Monday. “I tell them to think of their car parked in the sun. Now imagine living in it, 24 hours a day, with the windows up — or maybe down just a crack for the tiniest breeze. That’s what it’s like.”

In about 70% of Texas’ nearly 100 state prisons, there is no AC in the living units. Inmates wake, sleep and often work in unbearably hot environments, every day. It also means that thousands of prison guards also suffer through the same sweaty conditions.

This inhumane reality is no accident. The Texas Department of Criminal Justice has been fighting hard, and for years, to keep air conditioning out of the units. It’s been so committed to the notion that inmates be forced to endure Texas’ sweltering summers that it has spent millions in tax dollars just to fight off litigation demanding an end to what activists call cruel and unusual punishment.

Why? Officials say it will cost too much to add air conditioners, though as the Texas Tribune reports, their estimates have been proven repeatedly to be inflated. If cost were the real reason for opposing cooler conditions, then it would have fizzled months ago when Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg, introduced his bill to air-condition all prisons within seven years — but only if the Legislature provides money to pay for it.

Canales’ bill overwhelmingly passed the full House Thursday. A similar bill has lain dormant in the Senate without so much as a hearing, a fate that all previous versions of the bill seemed to share as well. But none of them were contingent on funding, and that apparently has made all the difference.

What’s needed next is for the Senate to pick up where the House left off. Time is running out, but good news came late Monday, when the bill was officially referred to the Senate Finance Committee. The Senate should advance the bill — and then get busy finding money to pay for it. After all, the funding caveat may have made the bill more palatable, but it won’t mean anything, even if it passes, until the Legislature agrees to pay for it.

U.S. District Judge Keith Ellison of Houston has repeatedly faulted TDCJ officials for refusing to comply even with court orders stemming from long-running litigation over the lack of AC in Texas prisons. “Each summer, including this one, plaintiffs face a substantial risk of serious harm from the sweltering Texas heat, and defendants have been deliberately indifferent in responding to this risk,” he wrote in a scathing, 101-page order in 2017. More recently, he praised officials for agreeing to a settlement with plaintiffs, only to later accuse the department of backtracking.

Prison officials say they’ve managed to make conditions more humane following the settlement. A few facilities have been cooled in recent years, and in some others, policy requires ice water be made available regularly to help inmates stay, if not comfortable, at least healthy.

That’s not enough.

“The policy sounds good on paper,” Toon says. “But who’s going to enforce that at the facility level? That’s where it always breaks down. The guards are overworked, underpaid, hot, tired — and some are going to be conscientious and some just aren’t.”

Toon recently finished her last day of parole, about two years after she ended nearly 20 years behind bars, first on a murder charge from when she was 15. Her first stint, about 10 years, was without air conditioning — and while she recalled it as brutal, she said she was so young her body soon adapted to even the boiling temperatures.

She went back to jail for burglary when she was about 30, and says her prayers were answered when she found herself in one of the relatively few air conditioned prisons. But just months before she was released, she got sent back to a facility without AC to complete a class as part of her parole process.

“It was so, so much hotter — a thousand times hotter — than I remembered it from when I was 18, 19,” she said.

To be sure, the heat is harder on older folks and those with underlying health conditions — be they inmates or guards, who are made to endure the suffocating heat in uniform. No wonder the state has trouble retaining them.

The Senate should do the humane thing and ease those conditions. TCDJ should welcome those efforts and speed them along.

Most people in prison deserve to be there, and no one ever said it should be a country club. But living in a hot, windowless cell in the middle of a Texas summer isn’t mere punishment. It borders on torture, and it should end.

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