Rosser McDonald

I’ve been trying to come up with something clever or profound to say about the heatwave we have been living in but I haven’t come up with anything.   I guess that “IT’S HOT” will have to do.  I hope your home, your job, or the places you have to spend your time in are tolerable for you.  Most of us have some options.  Step into the shopping mall, crank up the air conditioner, visit friends, relatives or neighbors.  And I know those options don’t work for everyone.

There is a large segment of our society for which there just aren’t options – those incarcerated in prison systems around the country.  It is fairly easy to dismiss them with a “it’s their own fault” comment.  (That thought can sometimes come back and bite us.)  Not all prisons have the same circumstances for heating and air conditioning, but the largest system, Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) is fully covered by the worst of the current heat wave. Thus, 150,000 convicts are ‘feeling the heat.’  Of course, prison policies, as well as state law and the U. S. Constitution declare that people are to be treated humanely and kept safely.  Unhealthy living conditions are not a part of an inmates’s punishment. 

Texas A and M University is part of a study involving the Hazard Redemption Center and some advocacy groups that reveal problems.  In an article about this in the Houston Chronicle, the newspaper editorial board adds: “Prisoners are dying.  Texas must do more to help.”  Many of the TDCJ’s 100 prison units routinely record 110 degree temperatures.  A convict is limited.  Most are housed in a cell with few options for moving to a cooler place or to where the fan blows.  There were close to 100 heat-related illnesses involving inmates and staff in 2018, well before the climate handed out 110-degree days.  And we need to remember that the inmate’s living conditions apply to the officers and other staff on duty, there. 

There have been over 6,000 grievances filed because of heat while many others say “it’s just a waste of time. “  Nearly a third of prison units are air conditioned, half are partially, but 14 units have no A/C at all.  J Carlee Purdum, a research professor at A and M, says controlling the heat is not a luxury but a necessity.  It can be a human rights matter because those incarcerated are to be able to live safely.  A TDCJ spokesperson said “We take numerous precautions to lessen the effects of the hot temperatures.” 

There are efforts to increase access to ice, water and fans.  But those are sometimes hindered by concerns for special medical or psychological needs and always by security requirements. These details apply to the Texas System, but similar issues affect many other state prisons.  Then all this is aggravated by Covid and other lockdowns. The ultimate answer to these issues is to air condition all the prison units.  BUT, that would cost a billion dollars just in Texas.  So, don’t give up – just wait for September.

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