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Congressional Dems urge action on scorching Texas prisons

An offender walks past a sign on a wall at the the Darrington Unit of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice men's prison in Rosharon, Texas, in 2014.
Adrees Latif
An offender walks past a sign on a wall at the the Darrington Unit of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice men's prison in Rosharon, Texas, in 2014.

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Congressional Democrats are pressing their Republican counterparts to investigate dangerous prison conditions across the country as a heat wave scorches many state prisons that don’t offer air conditioning to the incarcerated. Texas has seen a significant spike in mortality rates in its prisons this summer.

In a letter to Republicans on the House Oversight committee, Democrats on the committee argued Congress should act on these facilities.

“Most states do not provide air conditioning or adequate ventilation in prisons to withstand heat emergencies, posing serious risks to both incarcerated individuals and staff,” said the letter signed by 14 members.

The letter singled out Texas, which lacks air conditioning in two-thirds of its prisons. The state has repeatedly failed to act to relieve inmates with additional air conditioning, it said. Most recently, $545 million to expand air conditioning within the Texas Department of Criminal Justice nearly passed the state legislature but was killed, despite a large budget surplus.

“The letter from Congressional Democrats fails to mention the significant amount of funding appropriated for air conditioning by the Texas Legislature,” said Amanda Hernandez, director of communications for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

Hernandez said $85 million was set aside to increase air conditioning inside facilities. Many of Texas prisons are partially air conditioned, often in a respite area, chapel and in administrative areas. It wasn’t immediately clear how many inmate housing areas would be affected by new funding.

The state has previously reported roughly 42,000 beds in its facilities are cooled, increasing by roughly 9,000 in the past five years, according to the state. It is only a fraction of what is needed to accommodate its total population. TDCJ held more than 128,000 men and women in July.

“Our planet recently experienced the hottest month ever recorded, with Texas and other southern states measuring some of the hottest temperatures on Earth,” the letter added.

Democrats call the situation in Texas and dozens of others states dangerous. Indeed, TPR has reported that Texas has seen a system wide jump in mortality rates this summer. Two more men per 10,000 are dying this year compared to 2018-2019. The state did not provide any explanation for the spike, though many critics have speculated it is related to the searing heat in the facilities.

A study published last November links 271 deaths between 2001 and 2019 to unairconditioned Texas prisons. An analysis of state data showed that a spike in the mortality rate has hit Texas prisons system-wide.

The state has suffered no heat-related deaths in more than a decade, according to TDCJ. The claim has been challenged by multiple studies and called “false” by researchers.

State data show the heat in facilities is regularly above the 85 degree limit considered safe by law in county jails.

Congressional Democrats invited Republicans to push for better transparency in the often opaque institutions. Democrats noted their congressional colleagues' outsized interest in the conditions experienced in the Washington D.C. jail by those accused in the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection.

Republicans toured the D.C. jail in March of this year. The letter noted that a federal judge has said defendants in those cases have received “extraordinary accommodations.”

The entreaty is unlikely to engender action from congressional Republicans but is an attempt to draw attention from what some have called the distraction of conditions at the D.C. jail to facilities where men and women have suffered.

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Paul Flahive can be reached at Paul@tpr.org