AUSTIN, Texas — A heat wave that has consistently pushed temperatures well above 100 degrees Fahrenheit across much of Texas this summer had family members of inmates on Tuesday calling for lawmakers to ensure that all of the state’s prisons are fully air conditioned.
“They’re cooking our inmates in the Texas prison system,” said Tona Southards Naranjo, who believes the death last month of her son, Jon Southards, 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.
Advocates and others have been highly critical of the lack of air conditioning in the Texas prison system, alleging temperatures that often go past 120 degrees Fahrenheit (49 degrees Celsius) inside prisons in the summer have been responsible for hundreds of inmate deaths in recent years. Only about 30% of Texas’ 100 prison units are fully air conditioned, with the rest having partial or no air conditioning. Texas currently has more than 128,000 inmates.
However, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, or TDCJ, says there have been no heat-related deaths in the state’s prisons since 2012. Officials are still investigating what caused Jon Southards’ death, said Amanda Hernandez, a TDCJ spokesperson. At least eight other inmate deaths in recent weeks that advocates allege are heat-related were either due to cardiac arrest or other medical conditions or the cause is still under investigation, Hernandez said.
But Naranjo said her son’s body was covered in a heat rash. The last time she talked with him, just hours before his death on June 28, the 36-year-old, who had asthma, complained about not being able to breathe in his cell’s stifling air. He also complained about having to drink water out of his toilet because it was colder than the water from his sink.
“As a mother, this is crushing,” she said.
State Rep. Carl Sherman was one of several Democratic lawmakers who unsuccessfully tried getting bills passed in the GOP-controlled Legislature this year that would have required prisons to be fully air conditioned.
“This is not a political issue. This is a humanity issue ... This is about survival,” Sherman said Tuesday.
During this year’s regular legislative session, which ended in May, the Texas House had proposed more than $343 million for the next two years to install air conditioning in state prisons and pay for operating expenses and maintenance. But the Senate declined to provide any funding.
The lack of funding took place as Texas had a more than $32 billion budget surplus to work with during this year’s legislative session.
Cece Perez said her fiancé Martin Martinez has endured terrible conditions in his hot prison, the Stevenson Unit in Cuero, without being provided any sort of relief.
“He says that he wakes up gasping for air like somebody is suffocating him or sitting on his chest,” Perez said.
Hernandez declined to comment on criticism of TDCJ from Tuesday’s rally.
Rally participants asked that Republican Gov. Greg Abbott call a special legislative session to allocate funding for prison air conditioning.
A spokesperson for Abbott did not immediately return an email seeking comment.
Texas is one of at least thirteen states that doesn’t 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 Texas Prisons Community Advocates, an advocacy group for inmates.
In 2017, U.S. District Judge Keith Ellison in Houston said the nation’s largest prison system was “deliberately indifferent” to heat risks and subjected inmates to “a substantial 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.
TDCJ has continually pushed back against any claims that there have been any recent prisoner deaths due to the heat. There were 17 deaths from 2000 to 2012, with 10 of those deaths just in 2011, when Texas experienced a record heat wave, according to TDCJ.
But a November study by researchers at Brown, Boston and Harvard universities found that 13%, or 271, of the deaths that happened in Texas prisons without universal air conditioning between 2001 and 2019 may be attributed to extreme heat during warm months.