Texas lawmakers vote to install air conditioning in prisons | Texas
As Texas braces for its notoriously scorching summer temperatures, the State House has agreed to install air conditioning in dozens of uncooled prisons within seven years – but only if lawmakers spend the money on it.
On Thursday night, Texas House initially passed a bill that would require all Texas locks to be cooled over a seven-year period, capping costs at $ 300 million. But the state prison agency is only expected to comply with the measure if lawmakers also agree to provide state or federal funds for cooling costs. The bill finally cleared the House on Friday on a 123-18 vote and was sent to the Senate.
“The reality is that in Texas we cook people in prisons,” State Representative Terry Canales, D-Edinburg, said during his bill presentation. “It’s the right thing to do, it’s the human thing to do, and it’s something we should have done a long time ago.”
Currently, 70% of the approximately 100 state prisons do not have air conditioning in the living spaces. Some areas, such as administrative offices and infirmaries, are air conditioned in all units.
In the past decade, at least 13 men have died of heat stroke while incarcerated in Texas jails, according to court records and autopsy reports. Many more prisoners and guards are sick each year in temperatures that often exceed 100 degrees, requiring intravenous fluids after reporting dizziness, nausea, rashes and muscle cramps.
For years, Democrats in Texas have proposed measures to require state prisons to have cooling systems, as they do in county jails. But lawmakers balked at the cost, which the prison agency said would be over $ 1 billion – although it has vastly overestimated air conditioning costs in the past.
In 2017, after a federal judge criticized the Texas Department of Criminal Justice for being “deliberately indifferent” to the potentially fatal risk of suffocating temperatures inside a geriatric prison, the Texas Attorney General , Ken Paxton, argued that tens of millions of dollars to pay for expensive prison air conditioning systems. “
However, the state has spent millions of dollars on ongoing legal battles while resisting the installation of cooling units. The multi-year trial at the Geriatric Conditioning Unit has cost the state more than $ 7.3 million in legal fees. The TDCJ finally settled the dispute in 2018 and agreed to cool the prison near College Station, which cost less than $ 4 million – a fraction of the prison agency’s initial estimate of over $ 20 million. .
Dozens of other lawsuits against the TDCJ for heat-related deaths and illnesses have cost the state millions more since the summer of 2011, when a heat wave in Texas killed at least 10 jailed men.
“The reality is that what we are doing is disgusting. It’s really disheartening, ”Canales told the House Corrections Committee last month.
This year, Canales tabled the 1971 House Bill to phase in air conditioning in Texas uncooled prisons at a cost of up to $ 100 million per biennium. The bill would allow three phases of installation of two years, ending with all state prisons cooled below 85 degrees by 2029. The TDCJ said the cost would be much higher, but Canales and others Lawmakers have called the agency’s billion-dollar price tag ridiculous. “
But even if the Canales bill becomes law, state lawmakers would still have to separately set aside state dollars or seek federal funding for it. The funds could not come from the current TDCJ budget. Rather, the bill relies on lawmakers in future granting state funds to the TDCJ specifically to cool or direct federal dollars to the project.
Yet the bill’s passage through the House this session is the furthest that a prison air conditioning bill has gone to the Texas Legislature. Staggering cost estimates have often prevented air conditioning proposals from progressing beyond the first legislative stage of a committee hearing in previous years.