AUSTIN, TX — (TodayNews) — With a heat wave that consistently pushed temperatures well above 100 degrees Fahrenheit (38 degrees Celsius) across much of Texas this summer, family members of inmates on Tuesday called on lawmakers to ensure that all state prisons are fully air conditioned.
“They are preparing our prisoners in the Texas prison system,” said Tona Southards Naranjo, who believes the death of her son John Southards last month was caused by excessive heat in his prison, the Estelle Unit in Huntsville. Naranjo was one of more than 60 people who attended a rally outside the Texas Capitol on Tuesday.
Lawyers and others have been highly critical of the lack of air conditioning in the Texas prison system, arguing that temperatures that often exceed 120 degrees Fahrenheit (49 degrees Celsius) in summer in prisons have caused the deaths of hundreds of inmates in recent years. Only about 30% of Texas’s 100 prisons are fully air-conditioned, with the rest having partial or no air conditioning. There are currently over 128,000 prisoners in Texas.
However, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, or TDCJ, says there have been no heat-related deaths in state prisons since 2012. Officials are still investigating the cause of John Southards’ death, TDCJ spokeswoman Amanda Hernandez said. At least eight other prisoner deaths in recent weeks that advocates say are heat-related, Hernandez said, were either due to cardiac arrest or other medical conditions, or the cause is still under investigation.
But Naranjo said that her son’s body was covered with a rash. The last time she spoke to him just hours before his death on June 28, a 36-year-old man with asthma complained that he could not breathe the stuffy air of his cell. He also complained about having to drink toilet water because it was colder than his sink water.
“As a mother, it’s crushing,” she said.
State Rep. Carl Sherman was one of several Democratic lawmakers who unsuccessfully tried to get the GOP-controlled legislature to pass this year bills that would require full air conditioning in prisons.
“This is not a political issue. This is the problem of humanity… It is about survival,” Sherman said on Tuesday.
During this year’s regular legislative session, which ended in May, the Texas House of Representatives proposed more than $343 million over the next two years to install air conditioners in state prisons and pay for operating and maintenance costs. But the Senate refused to provide any funding.
The funding shortfall came as Texas had a budget surplus of more than $32 billion to work on during this year’s legislative session.
Cece Perez said that her fiancé Martin Martinez endured appalling conditions in his hot Stevenson prison in Cuero and was not given any relief.
“He says he wakes up gasping for air, like someone is choking him or sitting on his chest,” Perez said.
Hernandez declined to comment on Tuesday’s rally’s criticism of the TDCJ.
The rally asked Republican Governor Greg Abbott to call a special legislative session to allocate funds for air conditioning in prisons.
An Abbott spokesperson did not immediately respond to an email asking for comment.
Texas is one of at least thirteen states that do not have universal air conditioning in state prisons, according to a report last year by the Texas A&M University Hazard Reduction and Recovery Center and the Texas Prison Inmate Advocacy Group.
In 2017, U.S. District Judge Keith Ellison in Houston said the nation’s largest prison system is “deliberately indifferent” to the risks of overheating and puts inmates at “significant risk of serious injury or death.”
Ellison’s comments came as part of a settlement of a lawsuit filed by Texas inmates at one unit.
The TDCJ has consistently denied any claims of recent inmate deaths due to the heat. There were 17 deaths between 2000 and 2012, according to the TDCJ, with 10 of them in 2011 alone, when Texas experienced a record heatwave.
But a November study by researchers at Brown, Boston and Harvard Universities found that 13%, or 271, of the deaths that occurred in Texas prisons without universal air conditioning between 2001 and 2019 could be attributed to extreme heat during the warmer months. .
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