UT Law Report Says Texas Prisons Are Dangerously Hot

In the summer, Texas jailhouses get hot—so hot that 14 inmates have died from the heat in Texas prisons since 2007. A new UT study says these sweltering conditions amount to cruel and unusual punishment and violate international human rights standards.


The yearlong student effort at UT Law’s Human Rights Clinic echoes claims made by state corrections officers and civil rights groups alike, who for years have called for air conditioning in prisons run by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ). The UT report takes these claims a step further by arguing the extreme heat infringes on the basic human rights of the 150,000 inmates housed in Texas jails.

“I agree that if you commit a crime you should receive a punishment: you lose your liberty,” says UT Law professor Ariel Dulitzky, the clinic’s director. “But a person who is in detention doesn’t lose his or her rights once they pass through the prison doors. You don’t lose your right to life, dignity, health, or physical integrity.”

Though TDCJ medical, geriatric, and psychiatric units do have cooling systems, most prisons lack AC throughout their facilities. That puts Texas behind states with similarly hot climates, like Oklahoma and Arkansas—and also Guantanamo Bay, which has air conditioning in every cell—Dulitzky says: “Even the U.S. government believes people accused of terrorist attacks deserve to be treated with dignity.”

In response to UT’s report, an agency spokesman wrote, “TDCJ takes precautions to help reduce heat-related illnesses such as providing water and ice to staff and offenders in work and housing areas, restricting offender activity during the hottest parts of the day, and training staff to identify those with heat-related illnesses and refer them to medical staff for treatment.”

The report calls for TDCJ to do more—like set an 85-degree heat limit for Texas prisons. As part of their research, students filed public-information requests to obtain logs that showed morning temperatures spiking to 114 degrees F at Hutchins State Jail in July 2011. The 150-degree heat index—a combination of temperature and humidity to measure how hot it feels—was literally off the National Weather Service’s chart for extreme danger to heat exposure. Around that time, a prisoner serving 11 months for forgery began convulsing in his Hutchins cell with a 109-degree body temperature. He died soon after from hyperthermia.

“Did this man deserve that?” says Alex Goeman, one of the law students who helped write the 35-page report. “We’re very much battling the attitude of just lock ’em up and throw away the key.”

Students also acquired a training manual from TDCJ’s Risk Management Department, which advised prison workers to take extra precautions for their pets in hot weather: “If your pet is left indoors, is air conditioning available?” the manual asks. “Will the house stay cool through the heat of the day?” This new research adds fodder to earlier media stories claiming that TDCJ had been more willing to spend money cooling animals than humans—such as the $750,000 it spent to buy climate-controlled units for its pig-breeding barns.

Though the report has drawn international media attention from the likes of Russia, the United Kingdom, and Sri Lanka, Dilutzky and his students are aware that locally, they face an uphill battle.

“We need to have a grown-up discussion of what’s practical and reasonable and what’s politically acceptable,” Texas Senate Criminal Justice Committee Chairman John Whitmire (D-Houston), whose panel oversees the prison system, told the Houston Chronicle. “But I can tell you, the people of Texas don’t want air-conditioned prisons, and there’s a lot of other things on my list above the heat. It’s hot in Texas, and a lot of Texans who are not in prison don’t have air conditioning.”

But these Texans “have the freedom to move around,” notes Samantha Chen, another student involved in the report. They can find air conditioning in public buildings, or go outside for more ventilation. “They’re not stuck inside a metal-lined room.”

Next semester, a new group of law students will submit their findings to the United Nations and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, says Dulitzky, who also plans to hold meetings with Texas lawmakers this summer. He hopes a hearing with international human rights bodies will force local authorities to think about overheated Texas prisons in terms of human rights. The report, in turn, forms part of his effort to get students to think about human rights in terms of local issues. “I felt it was important for them to think about human rights issues as not just something that happens on the other side of the border.”

Photo by Thomas Hawk.


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