At least 14 Texas prisoners have died from overheating since 2007, according to a report released Tuesday by the University of Texas School of Law Human Rights Clinic, which argues that extreme conditions in state lockups violate the basic human rights of inmates.
Findings in the 40-page report echo claims made in lawsuits over eight inmate deaths that the Texas Civil Rights Project filed against the Texas Department of Criminal Justice on behalf of the deceased inmates and their families. The UT report said that prison workers are exposed to the same extreme conditions and recommended that state officials install air conditioning units and keep temperatures at the facilities below 85 degrees. But TDCJ officials argue that adding equipment would be too costly and that the agency takes adequate measures to ensure the safety of both inmates and employees in its prisons.
“In a way, prisons are a forgotten sector of society,” said Ariel Dulitzky, the director of the Human Rights Clinic. “We believe it’s important to give visibility to some of the problems they face.”
The temperature in some Texas prisons can soar above 149 degrees, according to the report, conditions that the authors said violate international human rights standards and the U.S. Constitution's prohibition of “cruel and unusual punishment.”
Heat exposure is especially dangerous for older inmates and people on certain diuretic and psychotropic medications, which hinder the body's ability to cool itself. It could also exacerbate other illnesses or health conditions, such as high blood pressure.
TDCJ employees also attest to the trying conditions, the report said. In 2012, 92 correctional officers suffered heat-related injuries, according to the report, and in 2013, the prison workers’ union publicly supported the wrongful death lawsuits against TDCJ.
Lance Lowry, president of Texas correctional officers' union, said prison workers have been filing grievances about the heat since the late 90s “with no avail.”
“We applaud this report,” Lowry said. “It’s going to be a losing battle for the state.”
Both Lowry and the clinic's report recommend that TDCJ install air conditioning to ensure temperatures don't exceed 85 degrees. Currently, county jails, which are under the oversight of the Texas Commission on Jail Standards, are required to maintain temperatures between 65 and 85 degrees. But the state prison system has not adopted heat-related policies. Other states with climates similar to Texas, such as Arkansas and New Mexico, have temperature standards in prisons, the report found.
But retrofitting state prisons with air conditioning would be "extremely expensive," TDCJ spokesman Jason Clark said in a statement, adding that medical, psychiatric, and geriatric units are air conditioned.
The prison system does have protocols regarding heat, including providing additional water and ice, restricting outside activity, using fans that draw outside air, allowing additional showers for inmates and training employees and inmates to be aware of the signs of heat-related illnesses.
Clark declined to comment on the previous deaths of inmates because of ongoing litigation.