In a sweltering Texas jail, cool towels but no air conditioners

Inmates cooling off near industrial fans inside Lopez State Jail in Edinburg, Texas, on Aug 19, 2022. PHOTO: NYTIMES

EDINBURG, TEXAS (NYTIMES) - Rashes from heat are common. Metal furniture is hot to the touch. Hyperthermia and dehydration are a constant risk, mitigated with fans, tepid water and wet towels. Deaths, though rare, have occurred.

This is life during much of the summer inside Texas' stifling prisons, a majority of which have no air conditioning for inmates despite increasingly extreme temperatures in the state.

For the men locked inside the dormitories of Lopez State Jail, dripping and desperate, a record-setting heat wave this summer created a feeling of misery bordering on hopelessness.

"It feels like you're walking around in hell," said Gary Crawford, 44, an inmate from Houston convicted of assault who was sharing a dormitory with dozens of other inmates on a day when the temperature in the jail had reached 91 degrees Fahrenheit (32.7 deg C).

On a recent weekday inside the minimum-security facility about 30 miles (48km) from the Mexico border, inmates draped yellow "cooling towels" around their necks and wiped away beads of sweat from their arms and faces.

"Everybody is always on edge," said David Guerra, 42, from San Antonio, who said he had been at Lopez for nearly a year for evading arrest.

Texas, one of at least 13 states without fully air-conditioned housing in its prison systems, has faced costly lawsuits and scathing criticism for failing to provide its inmates with relief from withering indoor temperatures at a time when lingering heat waves have become an ever-more-relentless feature of Texas summers.

The state is coming off its second hottest summer on record, with an average daily temperature of 97.4 degrees Fahrenheit.

The area around the Lopez State Jail in Edinburg experienced 48 days of 100 degrees or above, according to the state climatologist.

Since 2000, there have been at least 17 heat-related deaths in Texas prisons, including 10 during a heat wave in 2011, according to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. The last documented prison death was in 2012.

This year, 12 inmates and 21 employees have suffered heat-related illnesses, prison officials said, although some inmates' family members and supporters said they believed the number of heat-related illnesses was higher.

Although the Texas prison system has undergone court-mandated reforms, new prisons have not received extra funding for air conditioning, prison officials said. There has been little political momentum in the state's conservative legislature to spend tax dollars on air conditioning for inmates.

Since 2000, there have been at least 17 heat-related deaths in Texas prisons, including 10 during a heat wave in 2011. PHOTO: NYTIMES

However, the state does require some inmates to have air conditioning: those housed in jails run by the counties, which often house inmates who are awaiting trial.

The Texas Commission on Jail Standards, a state agency, requires that all county jails keep the temperature from 65 to 85 degrees. But that standard does not apply to state-run prisons.

As a result, only 1 out of every 3 prisons in Texas is fully air-conditioned.

The New York Times was granted access to the Lopez jail this month during a state lawmaker's fact-finding tour, a rare look inside a system that normally is closed to visitors.

"We can do better," state representative Terry Canales, a Democrat whose district includes the Lopez jail. He toured the prison before the next legislative session, with plans to introduce new legislation on prison air conditioning.

A Bill he introduced in 2021 passed the Texas House of Representatives but died in the Senate. Both chambers are controlled by Republicans.

The Texas Department of Criminal Justice, which oversees the state's 98 correctional facilities and its roughly 120,000 inmates, has a plan to completely air-condition prisons by the end of the decade at a cost of US$1.1 billion (S$1.53 billion). But it has yet to secure the funding from the Legislature.

Inside Lopez, there is air conditioning in the hallways, but not in the dormitories that house inmates.

Inmates can request to be taken to "respite" areas in air-conditioned sections of the prison. PHOTO: NYTIMES

Entering one from the cool hallway means confronting a withering blast of heat and humidity of the sort most people only experience climbing into a car parked in the sun on an extremely hot day.

Industrial fans were placed on the floors and ceilings as part of the state's "heat mitigation" strategy, but inmates, who sleep on bunk beds and mingle in an open area with benches and tables, complained the fans only recirculated hot air.

Lights in the dormitory were intermittently turned off during the day, an apparent attempt to reduce heat.

Inmates can request to be taken to "respite" areas in air-conditioned sections of the prison, and officials said they had access to ice and water.

How often such requests for respite are granted was not immediately clear, but Texas Prisons Community Advocates, an inmate support group, said it had reports of inmates who asked to go to respite but were not allowed.

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