AUSTIN (Nexstar) — For years, Michael Webber would sweat in the searing metal attics above Texas’ state prisons as he powered through electrical maintenance trips minutes at a time. That was all the time the oppressive heat would allow.
“We’d see temperatures as high as 130, 140. You’d work in that for a couple of hours, and you can only be up there for so long,” Webber said. “Then you’d have to come back down into that 105, 110 degree weather that everyone lives in so you could cool off. The conditions there could be really grueling. It becomes just like a pressure cooker filled with heat.”
Webber remembers witnessing other staff members succumb to the pressures to stay conscious and hydrated through long summer days. Staff would pass out from the heat at least once a week, he said, overheating from the physical demands of pacing through stifling cellblocks, climbing stairs, patrolling the yard and staying vigilant under a stab-proof vest.
“To put them in that environment is a recipe for disaster. TDCJ is not a safe place to work,” Webber said.
“It’s hot. It’s miserable. It’s inhumane,” said Jeff Ormsby, executive director of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice correctional officers’ union. He previously served as an officer for 28 years.
“It’s nonstop. Some of them don’t even get to sit down for the 14 to 16 hours they are there,” Ormsby said. “It’s comparable to if you go buy the heaviest coat possible, put that coat on and go to Texas Memorial Stadium and run up and down the stairs constantly.”
As a record-hot Texas summer just begins, current and former correctional officers are calling for their department to do more to protect them. They blame the heat for the department’s severe staffing shortage.
Sixty-nine of TDCJ’s 100 units lack full air conditioning. As of June 22, the department reported nine staff members fell ill due to the heat this year.
Yet, both the heat and the staffing issues have persisted for years. In 2021, TDCJ reported a correctional officer turnover rate of over 40%. Last year, they hit a record number of vacancies, with more than 8,000 open officer positions.
“The heat is one of those working conditions that is causing people to quit, causing the people not to come work there. That’s something we have to address,” Ormsby said. “It starts with TDCJ requesting it in their budgets. I think they could do more.”
This legislative session, the department told lawmakers that staffing is their most significant issue. Yet, they did not request any money for air conditioning when lawmakers were drafting their budget for the next two years. The union believes that may be why the legislature did not appropriate any.
“The people who are making these decisions and not putting this money in the budget — they’re sitting in air-conditioned offices. They’re not working the runs. They’re not running down the stairways, and I think maybe they’ve forgotten where they came from,” Ormsby said.
TDCJ did receive $85 million for “deferred maintenance” from the legislature this session. The department told Nexstar “a substantial amount of that will go to cool beds.” They are in the process of prioritizing projects for that funding.
The Texas House also approved $545 million in the biennial budget for air conditioning in TDCJ facilities, but the Senate stripped it out.
“Core to this department’s mission is protecting the public, our employees, and the inmates in our custody. It is a responsibility that the Texas Department of Criminal Justice takes seriously,” TDCJ Communications Director Amanda Hernandez said in June. “We take numerous precautions to lessen the effects of hot temperatures for those incarcerated within our facilities. These efforts work.”
For former officers who have found cooler work, however, the issue is not just one of human resources, but human dignity.
“Do we want to be humane and treat our state employees as if they are valued members of our society?” Webber asked. “Or do we want to treat them like disposable widgets that we can throw away and get another one? That’s the route that we’ve chosen to take as a state.”