Texas charges prisoners 50% more for water as heat wave continues
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The price of bottled water went up 50% in prison commissaries across Texas last month. The controversial move has two state agencies pointing the finger at each other as inmates struggle to endure an entrenched and deadly heatwave in facilities without air conditioning.
The state raised the price from $4.80 per case (24 bottles) to $7.20 per case on June 27. Commissary vendor Royal Pacific Tea Company requested to raise the prices in March even though it contract was incomplete. The prices were negotiated by the state comptroller's office and appear to be approved by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.
“Wow, well that certainly sounds like price gouging doesn’t it?” said Michele Deitch, director of the Prison and Jail Innovation Lab at the University of Texas at Austin.
About two-thirds of Texas prisons lack air conditioning, and 271 deaths between 2001-2019 may have been caused by extreme heat days, according to a 2022 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
Inmates and their families are bearing the burden of the price increase at a dangerous time — with heat in Texas prisons regularly in excess of what would be considered “safe” levels in county jails. No similar restriction on temperature exists for state prisons, and internal temperatures in June were largely above the 90s with some facilities over 100 degrees.
“Why make it more expensive during a heat wave? During natural disasters such as hurricanes, this would be illegal. What's the difference?” asked Kwaneta Harris, an inmate at TDCJ in an email to TPR.
Because of the ongoing heatwave TDCJ guards pass out glasses of cold water each day, and TDCJ has pointed out the men have access to tap water. But many current and former inmates have expressed concern about the water quality of the aging prisons — many older then 50 years.
“I would never drink the water at the tap,” said Don Aldaco, a recently paroled man who spent 24 years in various TDCJ facilities. “I would always get a piece of a sheet and I would tie it on the actual spigot, like a filter. I would have to change it like every other day because of all the rust and all the crud coming out.
Other current inmates commented on the smell of tap water in specific facilities resembling sewage. A TDCJ spokeswoman called the claim false.
“I actually begged him not to [drink the tap water],” said Amy Aguilar, whose loved one is at TDCJ’s Ferguson Unit. Her significant other — whose name she asked TPR to not use — has described the water as “rancid” smelling. And she said she was concerned about the quality.
“Do you smell the sewer?” Aguilar said she asked him, “And he goes, 'you kind of just smell it all. It's just this big ole rich mix of rancid smell.' ”
Water quality in prisons nationwide have been characterized as very low, due to the age of the facilities and the often remote locations.
TDCJ initially told TPR it had nothing to do with the price change. It added that the negotiation falls completely on the comptroller, and it did what it could to blunt the impact. The prices approved in April went up in late June.
“Due to the increase, TDCJ held the price at a lower cost for a few months as it went through our internal processes and to delay the impact felt by the inmates for as long as we could,” said Amanda Hernandez, director of communications for TDCJ.
A comptroller spokesman said the description was false, and that the price rise was done in concert with the state prison system — and released emails that appear to back up the statement.
“We approve the increase for the remainder of the contract,” wrote Tanya Hudnell, director of contracts and procurement for TDCJ, in an April 11 email to the comptroller's office, who requested their sign off.
The mid-contract adjustment in price was allowed to go through.
After publication of this story, TDCJ responded to TPR's questions about the differing narratives. According to prison officials they initially declined the price increase, but relented when they could find no other vendors that met their specifications.
Royal Pacific did not respond to TPR's request for comment. A TDCJ spokesperson said the company had pointed to inflationary pressure as the reason for the rise.
The prices may seem negligible to the working world — as a single bottle goes from $.20 to $.30.
“For people who are receiving absolutely zero pay for their work, any increase in cost is extremely significant for them,” Deitch said.
She wondered allowed about the humanitarian and medical ethics questions it raised — and worried what the men would be giving up to purchase water.
“It's unconscionable and, you know, it really needs to be evaluated, said Deitch. “Even if the vendor is demanding more, why isn't that an expense that the agency can bear?