AUSTIN (Nexstar) — In Texas’ state jails, the inmates are sentenced to just two years or less. But every summer, former inmate Maggie Luna remembers, the women inside worried their short sentences may take their life.
“All of these women that were suffering with me had not a lot of time, and they feared that they were getting death sentences,” she said. “Several times I told my mom, ‘I hope I make it out of here.'”
Her jail is one of the 70% of units within the Texas Department of Criminal Justice that do not have full air conditioning. As much of Texas braces through record-setting triple-digit temperatures, current and former inmates are describing dangerous and disturbing conditions inside their cells.
“It is suffocating. It’s terrifying just to feel like you’re cooking. I remember asking my bunkie, ‘do you think our brains are frying?'” Luna said.
She was released in 2016 after serving two years in the Lucille Plane State Jail for drug possession.
“Some days, we wouldn’t have water,” Luna recounted. “I saw a lot of women have seizures because of the heat. It is inhumane. We were like feral animals locked in this giant cage.”
Several emails sent from inmates and obtained by Nexstar express similar challenges within the last week.
“I’m having a really hard time breathing right now,” one inmate wrote. “It’s so humid you can’t breath… we were in AC for shakedown yesterday all morning and when we came back it was 118 degrees in here and going from AC to that made me sick to the point I threw up my electrolyte drink and I just felt sick and nauseous all day… not sure how long ima last here in the heat.”
“We are still not getting water,” another wrote. “They don’t give us respite at all. It’s very hot, we only have one big fan. They don’t give us respite showers AT ALL.”
Of the 100 units TDCJ operates, 14 have no air conditioning. Fifty-five units have “partial” AC, meaning they have “respite areas” such as cooled chapels, but do not provide AC in the cellblocks.
TDCJ said they provide water, ice, fans and air-conditioned respite areas to help inmates. They also rank inmates on a “heat sensitivity score” to prioritize the most at-risk people for cooled housing.
“Core to this department’s mission is protecting the public, our employees, and the inmates in our custody,” TDCJ Communications Director Amanda Hernandez said. “We take numerous precautions to lessen the effects of hot temperatures for those incarcerated within our facilities. These efforts work.”
Some lawmakers at the Texas Capitol have tried and failed to take further efforts. State Rep. Carl Sherman, D-DeSoto, filed legislation in the last legislative session to mandate universal air conditioning in Texas’ prisons. It passed unanimously out of the House Corrections Committee, but did not receive a debate in the full House.
“We as a state are all complicit in this. If we’re paying our tax dollars to house individuals who have been incarcerated under the custody of the state, and they’re in conditions that are worse than our animal shelters. I think we’re accountable for that,” he said. “We have the resources and we still have surplus, but there is not a will to provide AC in the housing units. So, you know it’s intentional.”
Sherman places the bulk of the blame on the Texas Senate, which has never shown the political will to change the air conditioning standards.
In April, State Sen. Brandon Creighton told Nexstar the upper chamber has a ways to go on the issue.
“Texas was a thriving state before air conditioning was even created,” he said. “So our families outside of the penal system and the prison system lived in the state of Texas for decades and decades and decades before air conditioning was even a thing. So we have to balance the cost of that, we have to meet court scrutiny…but at the end of the day, we’ve got a little ways to go on that one.”
Yet some are concerned even the safety precautions TDCJ provides are not being delivered. Dr. Amite Dominick keeps regular contact with inmates as the president of Texas Prison Community Advocates. She worries “there’s just no relief.”
“The incarcerated people are not receiving water like they should be receiving it. They’re not getting showers. People are just passing out there. I’m hearing an uptick in seizure activity from incarcerated individuals and their family members… there’s nothing for them,” she said. “There’s supposed to be respite areas that some units are saying doesn’t exist, even though they have to legitimately exist. What I’m hearing is there’s not enough staff to go around to fill the water buckets. And there’s no ice in these waters. Folks are just excruciatingly miserable right now. They’re hurting.”
As of Thursday, TDCJ told Nexstar four inmates have required medical care beyond first aid for heat-related injuries so far in 2023. Nine staff members have also had heat-related illnesses.
They also report the department has added air conditioning to 3,598 beds since 2019. They also have an ongoing project to add air conditioning to 5,861 more beds this year.
“Each summer we continue to refine and improve our practices,” Hernandez said. “What has not changed is our commitment to do all that we can to keep staff and inmates safe.”