13 Investigates: Temperature tops 100 degrees in some state prisons with no air conditioning

Tuesday, September 12, 2023
Temps top 100 degrees in some state prisons with no air conditioning
13 Investigates found the temperature at some state prisons reached 100 degrees or more inside cells where incarcerated individuals are housed.

HUNTSVILLE, Texas (KTRK) -- Between carrying keys, a radio and wearing a thick uniform including a stab-proof vest, Jeff Ormsby said correction officers at state prisons are sweating.

"You're looking at probably 10 extra pounds on you," said Ormsby, executive director of the Texas Correctional Employees Council. "If you want to get a comparison to it, then put on a pair of blue jeans, a long-sleeved shirt, put on the heaviest down jacket you can find, and then go find you some stairs like at the Texas Memorial Stadium in Austin and run up and down the stairs every 30 minutes and you'll get a good indication of what it's like."

13 Investigates found there's an extra layer to why prison employees and inmates tell us they're sweating inside Texas Department of Correctional Justice facilities.

A majority of state prisons in Texas have either partial or no air conditioning. At least 68 prison facilities house inmates in areas without air conditioning.

The state is required to keep an indoor heat log during the summer, which captures the temperature at 3 p.m. every day inside a cell or other housing areas without air conditioning.

Our investigation found temperatures reached as high as 106 degrees one day in June inside the housing area of a facility in Central Texas.

At the Garza West facility in South Texas, the indoor afternoon temperature exceeded 100 degrees, 11 days in a row in early August.

"I would say a large majority of officers that work for TDCJ are working in areas that have no AC access," Ormsby said. "Inmates get what's called respite. So if an inmate is getting too hot, they can request respite and they get to go down to the chapel or somewhere it's air conditioned where they can cool down. Staff don't have respite."

Still, the families of incarcerated individuals tell us their loved ones inside state prisons routinely complain about the heat because while staff can go home at the end of the day to an air conditioned home, the prisoners can't.

One of their complaints is that, in Texas, state jails are required to maintain temperatures between 65 and 85 degrees. There is no requirement for prisons to maintain a certain temperature.

Marci Marie, who served 10 years for fraud before getting released in 2021, said summers were brutal.

"We are not talking about making someone comfortable. What we advocate for is temperatures 85 degrees or less. If you had your home thermometer set to 85 degrees in August, you would be far from comfortable sitting in your living room," she said. "What we're asking for is safe temperatures. We're asking for non-life threatening temperatures. It's literally a matter of life and death. It's not a matter of comfort."

We asked TDCJ for an interview, but they declined and sent us a statement instead.

"In 2023, there have been 16 inmates who required medical care beyond first aid for heat related injuries and none were fatal. This is out of a current total population of approximately 129,000," TDCJ Director of Communications Amanda Hernandez said in a statement. "Much like those Texans who do not have access to air conditioning in their homes, the department uses an array of measures to keep inmates safe."

She said some of the measures include providing access to ice and water, as well as fans and offering inmates access to "air conditioned respite areas when needed."

"Over the past several years, the agency has worked to increase the number of cooled beds available. Currently, the total number of cool beds is approximately 42,500. There are approximately 5,000 cool beds under construction. Additionally, TDCJ received historic funding from the legislature this session, which included $85 million for air conditioning. This will add an additional 11,000 cool beds," Hernandez said in her statement. "Each summer we continue to refine and improve our practices. What has not changed is our commitment to do all that we can to keep staff and inmates safe."

Still, TDCJ employees and families of current inmates tell us they'd like to see changes now. Those employees and inmates did not want to disclose their names due to fear of retaliation.

We spoke with another formerly incarcerated person who said the lack of air conditioning has been an issue for years.

Jeff Taylor, who served a 25 year prison sentence for an aggravated robbery, said when temperatures soared inside the prison, it also caused those individuals to become more agitated, which could lead to resentment rather than assist them in rehabilitating for if they are released back into society.

"I spent 25 summers in the heat," Taylor said. "There is no cool. That's a foreign word. What they're experiencing right now is not cool."

Ormsby, who represents thousands of TDCJ employees through the union, said the working conditions have caused a problem with retention.

"Animals in a humane society are treated better than people are inside of prisons, and that includes staff," he said. "Until the working conditions improve for TDCJ, they're not going to fix the shortage of staff and those working conditions are climate control. I mean, it doesn't have to be 65 degrees. If they can maintain a temperature of 85 degrees that will be a plus."

TDCJ told us in July, about 73% of its correction officer positions were filled, with 6,428 job openings for officers statewide.

Ormsby said in the seven years he's been with the union, morale is the lowest it has ever been.

"This is one of the hottest summers on record. They gave them a pay raise and that helped morale, you had to give credit to TDCJ for doing that, but you also have to take into consideration that TDCJ has not put in a request for AC in their budget," he said.

For updates on this story, follow Kevin Ozebek on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

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