Citing reports of excessive heat in Texas prisons, House Democrats call for investigation

Congressional Democrats are asking their Republican colleagues to join them in an investigation into heat-related conditions in prisons and jails across the country, singling out the conditions in Texas.

On Monday, Democrats in the House Committee on Oversight and Accountability sent a letter to committee chairman James Comer, R-Ky., arguing that “the problem of prison conditions demands serious attention by Congress.” The letter was signed by 14 members, including Reps. Jasmine Crockett of Dallas and Greg Casar of Austin.

“Despite a surplus in the Texas state budget, state legislators prevail with the mindset that allowing inmates to suffer from excessive heat is appropriately ‘tough on crime,’” the letter says.

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Comer’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The Texas Republicans on the committee — Pat Fallon of Sherman and Pete Sessions of Waco — also did not respond to requests for comment.

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More than two-thirds of Texas Department of Criminal Justice’s prisons and jails lack air conditioning in most living facilities. The state is fighting at least 20 lawsuits related to extreme heat in prisons.

This year, 15 inmates and 35 workers have been treated for heat-related illnesses, TDCJ spokeswoman Amanda Hernandez said. Seven inmates and 11 employees were treated last year.

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A Dallas Morning News analysis found at least 15 inmates died in June and July of a cardiac arrest event or of unknown causes in facilities with little or no air conditioning on days the high temperature reached at least 95 degrees.

This includes Jon Anthony Southards, 36, of Fort Worth, who died June 28 in a state prison in Huntsville without air conditioning when the heat index peaked at 116. His mother, Tona Southards, has said she believes the heat was a main factor in his death.

The TDCJ has not counted a heat-related death since 2012, according to Hernandez.

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‘Our shared interest’

The letter mentions how the state Senate rejected a Texas House request to use more than a half a billion dollars of the state’s surplus to expedite installation of modern HVAC systems in prisons.

It also notes a bill passed in the state House that would have required all TDCJ-run facilities to be kept between 65 and 85 degrees, the standard for county-run jails. The bill died in the Senate.

Hernandez said the letter did not mention the $85.7 million appropriated for air conditioning by the Texas Legislature this session.

The budget said the money would be used to complete additional “deferred maintenance projects,” but Hernandez previously told The News a substantial amount of those funds will go toward air conditioning for beds.

“In fact, Texas lawmakers have funded significant AC projects over the last several legislative sessions,” Hernandez said in a statement Friday. “Ignoring these actions is ignoring the facts.”

Democrats wrote in the letter that their Republican colleagues in the committee arranged a visit earlier this year to the Washington, D.C., jail “in light of concerns about the conditions experienced by individuals held on charges related to the January 6 attack on the capitol.”

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“Given our shared interest in the rights of the incarcerated, we urge you and Committee Republicans to join Committee Democrats in our work to bring transparency and accountability to prisons across the country, sweltering in the heat of a brutal climate change summer,” the letter says.

Dealing with the heat

The TDCJ has said it has taken steps to mitigate the effects of possibly deadly temperatures. Hernandez said inmates have access to a fan; can request cups, water and ice; and may use air-conditioned areas when needed. Cooling fans are also strategically placed in facilities.

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The TDCJ also identifies inmates at a heightened risk of heat-related illnesses through a sensitivity score, which considers a variety of factors ranging from heart and medical diseases to mental health disorders or a person’s medication.

However, prisoner advocates and family members of those incarcerated have said these practices aren’t always followed.

The blistering heat also contributes to turnover amongst correctional officers and puts greater stress on inmates and staff, Clifton Buchanan, deputy director of the union that represents TDCJ employees, previously told The News.

The TDCJ is projected to have 47,000 beds in air conditioning by the end of the year, Hernandez has said, which would cover about 37% of the total inmate population of roughly 128,000.

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Other facilities in Texas and elsewhere in the South have been subject to federal scrutiny in the past. In 2021, the Department of Justice opened an investigation into the conditions of five facilities run by the Texas Juvenile Justice Department.

The DOJ also has opened investigations into conditions in Georgia’s prisons and concluded last year that conditions and practices at the Mississippi State Penitentiary violate the U.S. Constitution.

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