Lance Lowry, president of AFSCME 3802, published an op-ed piece in today’s Austin Statesman. He urges the Texas legislators and citizens to upgrade old, non-air conditioned buildings for the safety of both guards and inmates. It is a superb piece of writing:
Texas once prided itself as being tough on crime. The Texas Department of Criminal Justice is the largest state-run prison system in the United States with more than 153,000 inmates currently incarcerated. The Texas prison population surpassed California several years ago after the federal courts ruled conditions in California were unconstitutional, forcing California to reduce its prison population.
Texas has its own history of federal prison court mandates. In the 1978 landmark class action case Ruiz v. Estelle, Texas was forced to expand from 18 prisons to more than 112 prison facilities to address crowding. The massive prison expansion lead to an extreme fiscal burden for a state that lacked an income tax to fund their governmental operations.
The state of Texas has failed to learn from its mistakes. Recently the state of Louisiana had a federal court issue an injunction citing lack of climate control as cruel and unusual. Texas faced a similar loss after the federal 5th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against the state over heat litigation citing that sweltering Texas prison heat could constitute an Eighth Amendment violation, returning the case to a lower court.
In August the Texas prisons finalized a $750,000 bid to replace their aging swine production facilities with six new climate-controlled modular barns. The new hog barns would reduce the loss of swine due to the brutal Texas summers.
The deaths of the prison hogs were not the only losses suffered from the brutal Texas heat. Fourteen people have lost their lives due to extreme heat exposure inside Texas prisons since 2007. Last year 92 Texas correctional officers reported illnesses due to working in the sweltering prisons. The state of Texas made it clear they were willing to protect their livestock, but not their own correctional officers from heat indexes that reach over 130 degrees Fahrenheit.
The Texas Commission on Jail Standards requires all Texas county jails to keep a temperature below 85 degrees Fahrenheit. Texas exempts their own prisons from the standard they enforce on all Texas county-operated jails.
Fear of change and fiscal cost keep Texas from expanding climate control to their prisons. Most modern facilities enjoy climate control, but Texas prisons are decades behind on times — built when climate control was in limited use. Texas state politicians are driven by their constituents to keep spending low. “Right on Crime” prison policies make Texas a national model for prison reform, but the treatment of their officers and inmates leaves the state open for scrutiny.
Since 2011 Texas has closed three state prisons by being fiscally smart on crime by increasing use of probation and job training and offering programs to assist inmates in adapting to society. This smart approach saved Texas taxpayers more than $2 billion so far. Texans learned that being tough has a price tag, but being smart on crime was better.
A higher inmate population has led Texas prison administrators to cut dangerous corners since the massive prison expansion. Growing from 18 prisons to 112 prisons led to reduced employment screening to properly recruit qualified correctional officers. The agency was forced to hire officers other agencies wouldn’t attempt to hire. Texas prisons hire officers lacking proper physical qualifications, hiring a large portion of retirees and teens fresh out of high school. With no physician’s examination of applicants required, many employees are unfit to work in the extremely hot temperatures inside the prisons where they are required to perform manual labor for up to 12 hours a day in hot Kevlar vests. The age range of Texas correctional officers is anywhere from 18 years old to more than 80 years old. An 80-year-old correctional officer shouldn’t be subjected to heat indexes over 130 degrees Fahrenheit, which has driven the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Texas Correctional Employees Union to support legal action against the state of Texas by both employees and inmates.
With thousands of Texas correctional officers on heat sensitive medications such as blood pressure medicine, diuretics and antidepressants, Texas is placing thousands of its own correctional officers and inmates in harms way. Without proper pre-employment medical screening, the prison system may face liability under the Americans with Disabilities Act by not providing reasonable accommodations.
The price for Texas to sell this hog in court may cost taxpayers millions. The federal judges are on the right track in recent court rulings. Forcing the state to act in an ethical matter may be the only way to resolve these inhumane conditions.
Lowry is currently the president of the Huntsville local chapter of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.