Reckless Indifference: Extreme Heat in Texas Prisons

The heat in Texas prisons is so severe that at least 14 inmates have died since 2007 in Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) facilities, despite the fact that the TDCJ has been aware of the problem for years. Whether through litigation, letters from legislators, pleas from inmates and their families, or the previous report that the Clinic published last April, the TDCJ has been continuously reminded that the heat in its prisons is killing people.

While the Texas Commission of Jail Standards (which administers county jails) has regulations about temperature range, the TDCJ has no such standards. This means that during the summer, temperatures inside the living areas in TDCJ facilities regularly exceed 100 °F, and the Clinic has found daily temperature log sheets that indicate that the heat index (which factors in humidity and represents what the temperature feels like) has reached 149 °F.

Courts have found that similar conditions constitute a violation of the Constitution’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment. There are currently several pending lawsuits against the TDCJ to address the issue. The United Nations Committee Against Torture (CAT) has also expressed serious concern about the heat in Texas prisons. In addition to the United Nations, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) shared the same concern, and as CAT requested that the TDCJ investigate the deaths of inmates in its facilities.

There are several recommendations that the Clinic makes in the new report to address the issue. They range from immediate remedial measures as well as long-term systemic changes. The most urgent is to provide inmates with ice and cool water and to allow them to take as many showers as needed to lower their body temperature. They should also place inmates who, for a variety of reasons are more susceptible to heat related injuries such as heat stroke, into separate areas that are cooled. The TDCJ should also screen and monitor all inmates to assess their susceptibility for heat related injury. There should be an official permitted temperature range of 65 °F to 85 °F, and in order to achieve this air conditioning should be installed in all facilities. Finally, the TDCJ should change its grievance procedures—which inmates insist is not designed to actually provide any relief—so that legitimate complaints can be investigated and addressed. The Clinic calls on the Texas legislature to adopt immediate measures to address the deadly heat in its prisons. 

Human Rights Clinic, University of Texas School of Law