The University of Texas at Austin
  • Summer Heat Kills Inmates in Prisons, and That Needs to Change

    By Ariel Dulitzky, Director of the Human Rights Clinic; Alex Goeman & Samantha Chen, Students of the Human Rights Clinic
    Published: June 26

    Searing heat and suffocating humidity levels are upon us here in the Southern states. In Texas, residents know that summers are brutal, but while we may be proud of our ability to withstand such extreme conditions, that cold blast of air conditioning when we walk indoors is a welcome respite from the heat outside. In fact, prolonged exposure to temperatures as low as 90 degrees Fahrenheit, when combined with high humidity levels, can put even the healthiest individuals in extreme danger. Despite knowing of these dangers, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) has declined to provide air conditioners in most inmate housing areas, or even to set maximum temperature standards in these areas. This needs to change.

    Every summer, the TDCJ subjects its prisoners to deadly temperature and humidity levels, and violates prisoners’ human and constitutional rights and their rights to health, life and dignity. Some note that many law abiding Texans do not have air conditioning in their homes. However, these individuals have the freedom and capability to escape deadly summer heat by entering air-conditioned buildings such as libraries or movie theaters. They can take showers and drink water as many times as they want. TDCJ inmates, on the other hand, spend much of their time locked in enclosed concrete and metal structures, where temperatures often exceed 100 degrees during the summer months.

    As we noted in our report “Deadly Heat in Texas Prisons,” at least 14 heat-related deaths have been documented at TDCJ facilities since 2007. Many of these inmates had pre-existing health conditions or were taking medications that rendered them heat-sensitive, yet the TDCJ did not properly provide cooled living areas. While the TDCJ uses ventilation and fans indoors, these measures do not protect against heat illnesses in high temperatures and humidity. To the contrary, fans can accelerate heat-related illnesses in such conditions.

    The TDCJ’s failure to address the extreme heat conditions in its prisons is a violation of the law, both from a constitutional and international perspective. The Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution forbids cruel and unusual punishment, and courts have repeatedly held, as recently as December in Louisiana, that failure to mitigate the South’s extreme summer temperatures is a violation of the Constitution. A federal lawsuit filed last week in Houston is the latest to seek relief for certain prisoners. Additionally, all the major human rights bodies affirm the rights of prisoners to have their dignity respected and to be free from cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment such as exposure of prisoners to temperature extremes, and many international human rights court decisions have found that extreme heat similar to situations in Texas contributes to a finding of inhuman or degrading prison conditions.

    The TDCJ’s practices to combat extreme heat in its prisons are also woefully inadequate, especially compared with the practices of many other states. For example, the Arkansas Department of Corrections has provided air conditioning for its inmates since the 1970s and has set a formal maximum allowable temperature of 78 degrees for its inmate housing areas. The Oklahoma Department of Corrections requires that temperatures in that state be maintained at appropriate levels. Texas’ own Texas Commission on Jail Standards requires Texas county and privately operated municipal jails to keep temperatures in inmate housing areas below 85 degrees. Even detainees at Guantanamo Bay are provided with air-conditioned cells.

    It is important to remember that, despite their incarceration, inmates retain an inviolable set of rights: the rights to dignity, health, life, and freedom from cruel, unusual, inhuman or degrading treatment. The heat in Texas prisons continues to violate all of these rights, and there is no excuse for this blatant disregard for fundamental human rights. The TDCJ should take immediate action to better protect its more than 150,000 prisoners from extreme and deadly heat. Otherwise, we will almost certainly see even more preventable, heat-related deaths this summer.

    Ariel Dulitzky is the director of the Human Rights Clinic at The University of Texas School of Law. Alex Goeman and Samantha Chen are students of the Human Rights Clinic.

    A version of this op-ed has appeared in the Huffington Post, Houston Chronicle and the Austin American Statesman.

    Texas Perspectives disclaimer

    • Quote 2
      christina brown said on July 17 at 9:20 p.m.
      These are people that we are talking about just because they commited a crime doesnt mean they arent human it is a 100 fucking degrees outside you cant even breathe are legal system is a joke everybody makes mstakes the TDJC is not God and they can not decide how someone is going to live and pay for there crimes oh there criminals lets punish them by not providing them with air and inhumane living conditions really I cant wait til judgement day your all going to hell do unto others stupid idiot's
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      Byron D. Grays said on July 12 at 1:42 p.m.
      @TDCJ Correctional Officer et al, I find your responses both, predictable and your "[new]cause to take on...", the 8:45 and :15 policy or rule. I shall address the 8:45 shift /:15 min break requires little effort or thought. Moreover, I shall site to one of your responses, as it is an appropriate response for this particular "cause". You wrote, "Where would the funds come from? Higher taxes? I am sure that all who think TDCJ is so heartless and violating rights..." Certainly you would agree, by enacting a break policy consisting of more than :15 min for your work group would ultimately be fiscally 'taxing' for the citizens of Texas. As such, I would support in-house training of you and your colleagues so that you're better able to identify colleagues who may be a bit fatigued from, as you wrote, "working at top speed for 8 to 12 hours." I find your responses to the unconstitutional conditions of our TX inmates, perpetrated by the governmental entity of the TDCJ just as ridiculous as, I'm quite sure, you find YOUR responses when I insert them to address your break issue. The TDCJ has a duty of care to the inmates within the housing units of their facilities. Clearly they (TDCJ) have and continue to knowingly and with wanton disregard for the well-being of these texas citizens, breach their duty. Quite possibly, the federal government needs to intervene in this matter as it becomes quite clear, those administrators here in Tx, who are empowered to implement needed change will not, shall not and quite possibly feel that they themselves are above federal law. Such conditions are wholly unacceptable. We are not a third world country or state. Nor is our inarticulate governor above the law. We have gone to war with other nations who dared to treat their own citizens this poorly. When last I checked, no one had appointed me judge, juror or executioner, as the TDCJ must feel they are during the summer months in their facilities. Now back to your problematic 15 min break ordeal. Here's a novel approach...Circulate a 'survey' or better yet a petition among your coleagues and enlist those in your work group at the other facilities to do the same. Let several voices unite as one and meet with your administrators to hammer out a more reasonable schedule of breaks. If that fails, UNIONIZE...Under a collective bargaining agreement, hours of work and break scheduling shall be enumerated within the body of the collective bargaining agreement (your contract). Respectfully, Byron D. Grays President and Principal Officer, TheAdvocacyGroup, LLC
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      Carla said on July 11 at 10:54 p.m.
      I would sue in a heart beat if my child died at the hands of a tx prison from heat!And I agree w Trudy.....SOMETHING has to change!
    • Quote 2 said on July 7 at 9:21 a.m.
      Since the admin of this site is working, no hesitation very rapidly it will be renowned, due to its feature contents.
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      TDCJ Correctional Officer said on July 3 at 5:51 p.m.
      I can see where some of those who commented felt I was cold, or mean. I agree, air conditioning would be nice--even for those who get to go home.) Just a perspective. The Unit facilities are not carbon copies. Perhaps there should be a priority list, just in case the People of the State of Texas do not want to pay for air conditioning of all prisons without air conditioning. Hmmm. Where would the funds come from? Higher taxes? I am sure that all who think TDCJ is so heartless and violating rights would be willing to pay--perhaps a fee taxing offenders and offenders families' future incomes? Not being a smart aleck--just wondering. Imagining air conditioning is pleasant.
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      jose said on July 2 at 7:42 p.m.
      It is torture on top of punishment. Some prisons do not have windows in their cell, like Ellis Unit in Huntsville, the window is 25 feet from their cell and its tilt opened at the bottom, and the third tier gets the hottest. They can only shower once a day, and get no ice.
    • Quote 2 said on July 2 at 3:51 a.m.
      I love it when individuals come together and share opinions. Great site, keep it up!
    • Quote 2
      Cristina said on June 29 at 1:47 p.m.
      To the correctional officer, it doesn't matter if you do a survey air conditioning should be a must in Texas prisons that heat is to damn HOT for anybody. You will treat animals better than you would treat these offenders, yes they are incarcerated from making mistakes but they are still human no matter what and people should not be dieing in prison from heat exhaustion. Unless the TDCJ wants a whole lot of lawsuits on their hands i suggest taking this situation very seriously, because i know that there is no lawyer in the state of Texas who will not take on a case like this. And one more thing officer yes you've adapted to the cold and heat but you get to go home every night.
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      Karen said on June 28 at 2:07 p.m.
      Karen Kerstens I think Air conditioning would create a better environment for all HUMANS inside the prison. When the weather heats up so does the activities of problems with offenders. People are cranky when they are uncomfortable. After years of working directly ins...See More 13 hours ago · Like · 1 Karen Kerstens I would like to see the one building employees go without a/c and never complain... 13 hours ago · Like · 1 Cynthia Wood I would like to see air conditioning for our officers. I think they suffer more than offenders cause they have to put on belts, uniforms, and safety gear. Offenders where white shorts and no shirts. Yes I am a retired count room personnel at the Polunsky unit. 13 hours ago · Unlike · 2 Cynthia Wood I would like to add when I was there for 17 years yes our air condition went out a lot in 1 building. And yes that was tough because we had no windows that would open no breeze except for fans that blew hot air. There was no air and think about property room that is in a tight spot. So yes we suffered more then the offenders cause offenders have small windows to open but 1 building did't have any. 13 hours ago · Like Suzi Woods I would love to see comments at the article. Our unit does not have air conditioning except in control and admin areas. Fortunately, we do have a breeze sometimes, hopefully not in conjunction with a dust storm:-) 4 hrs · Like John Horton I would like to see the units get air condition for the officers that work in the hot conditions. LIEUTENANT POLUNSKY UNIT 3 hrs · Like · 2 Suzi Woods Please also comment at the article. We, "the People" deserve a more balanced point of view:-)
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      Trudy Collins said on June 28 at 2:04 p.m.
      This is not right ... Something has to change! I don't care if guards are trained to recognize heat related illness or not 99% will do NOTHING ABOUT IT! Where do we file formal complaints ?
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      Karen said on June 28 at 12:17 a.m.
      I was a supervisor and had the experience of sending an officer to the hospital for heat related illness. Training does not prevent the issue, it just helps up recognize it to keep people from collapsing or worse ..... If not for the Officer the inmate would not be contained....Do it for the humanity of the OFFICERS!
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      TDCJ Correctional Officer said on June 27 at 9:51 a.m.
      Officers are taught to watch for signs of heat related illnesses as well as more closely observing those deemed more susceptible to heat related illness. Not all units and buildings are alike. Many offenders have more freedom behind the barbed wire than you would guess; especially if you have not actually visited inside. Tap water is available in cell and in the day rooms, at least in the units I am familiar with. Further, cold drinks are available at chow. As a "Roving" or Floor Officer I feel blessed to walk by a cell and catch a breeze coming through a window and recirculated by offenders' fans. ...Oh, Officers can certainly tolerate the heat conditions because after working at top speed for 8 to 12 hours we get to go home to air conditioning. By the way, here's another cause to take on--we are only allowed a 15 min break per 8hr 45 min shift. IF we have staffing to cover us. Actually, I have found that I adapt to a short break, or no break; just as I adapted to the bitter cold of winter and the heat of summer. I recommend doing a survey. Ask if offenders would rather have air conditioning or TV, or even fewer television channels. Ask if they would rather have air conditioning or rec (recreation, not recess).
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