The policy implications of extreme heat: The prison conversation

Jeremy Mazur, senior policy advisor for infrastructure and natural resources, and Luis Soberon, policy advisor for criminal justice, converse about the justice and safety policy implications of Texas 2036’s recent release of the updated report on extreme weather trends on prison inmates and staff.

JEREMY MAZUR: Hi, Luis! So one of the big takeaways from our recent updated report on extreme weather is that it’s going to get hotter. The report projects that the average temperature in 2036 will be three degrees Fahrenheit warmer than the last half of the last century. This warming trend will make our extremes worse, with 100-degree days being four times as common in 2036 as they were in the 1970s and 1980s. You and I have talked about what this could mean for our prison system. So what’s your take?

LUIS SOBERON: This report highlights the urgency to invest in climate control systems in Texas prisons. The vast majority of Texas’ roughly 100 prison facilities don’t have air conditioning, which is excruciating during these ever-hotter summer months. Periods of excessive heat contribute to significant increases in inmate violence, inmate suicide incidents, and inmate deaths, representing direct threats to TDCJ’s core mission.

Looking at the data from just last year alone, we saw some incredibly hot indoor temperatures.

Two long, hot summers

JEREMY: Last year was exceptionally hot, Luis. The report notes that the hot summers of 2022 and 2023 enhanced the observed trend towards more 100-degree days, with the average hottest temperature last year being 106 degrees. One relationship I’ve noted is that between hotter temperatures and increased electrical demands as we use more air conditioning.

hot Texas dayLast year, the state’s grid set a demand record on Aug. 10 as temperatures hit 107 degrees in Austin and Dallas, 103 in Houston, and 100 in Corpus Christi. Nine other records were set on hot days in June, July, and August.

Luis, going back to the data, how hot was it in Texas’ prisons?

LUIS: It’s interesting you bring up Aug. 10, because the average temperature inside a Texas prison on that day without climate control was 94 degrees, one of the highest last year. The highest recorded temperature that day was 101.4 degrees inside Lychner State Jail in Humble.

And that’s not an outlier. Lychner had 15 triple-digit days inside its inmate-housing areas last summer. Bear in mind that the heat index or “Feels Like” temperature recorded in Humble that day was 112 degrees. These are the conditions that hundreds of staff and roughly 2,000 inmates at Lychner had to endure. Replicate that experience across the 67 other TDCJ facilities that still lack sufficient indoor climate controls.

Extreme heat and its effect on workfore

JEREMY: This also strikes me as a unique workforce issue. Doesn’t this have a bearing of prison guards and staff? And if prisons are too hot to work in, how can we find the people to do this job?

justice and safety hot weather texas prisonsLUIS: Absolutely. Staffing is already a critical challenge for TDCJ. We’ve seen major problems — including prison escapes — associated with the agency being short staffed. TDCJ has historically had some of the worst turnover rates among state agencies, essentially tied for second behind the juvenile justice system.

The Legislature made some key investments in mitigating turnover including pay raises for correctional staff and improving correctional officer safety. But the workplace environment, and specifically extreme heat, plays a key role. At a committee hearing in 2022, TDCJ’s executive director testified to his belief that working in AC would improve recruitment and retention.

Managing heat-created liability

JEREMY: What’s interesting here is how the heat exacts a toll on the public sector. Texas’ prison system, as you describe, is one aspect. Last year, the extreme heat warped roads and railways. The report also concludes that hotter temperatures will contribute to increased evaporative losses from the rivers, lakes, and reservoirs that we rely on for drinking water. To put it bluntly, the heat is becoming a liability. But you see a different type of liability here?

LUIS: That’s right. There are very unique and real legal liabilities here. The record heatwave in 2011 caused multiple inmate deaths and led to a multi-year lawsuit, in which a judge concluded that the extreme heat within one prison unit violated the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. That case’s settlement cost taxpayers millions in legal fees before air conditioning was ultimately installed. Fast forward to today, where we have a very similar lawsuit that’s been filed calling for climate control systems in the remaining prison units. Keep in mind that several decades ago, Texas’ prison system was overseen by a federal judge due to constitutionally deficient conditions of confinement.

That was 30 years of litigation over prison conditions and violations of the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment, which should be a cautionary tale given the parallels to what we see today.

Looking for a solution

JEREMY: What’s a sensible solution here? Prisons are there for punishment and are not meant to be enjoyable, but they also have to maintain a basic level of health and safety. Failing that, it seems to me that the state will be liable for putting prisoners’ health at risk, and possibly creating another situation where a federal judge dictates state policy.

Texas prisons heat blogLUIS: Texas needs a plan for climate control systems in prisons as soon as possible. For decades, state law required that county jails keep their facilities within a reasonable temperature range — no higher than 85 degrees. Federal prisons have to be kept no higher than 79 degrees. This requirement does not apply to state prisons. In fact 65% of all temperature readings between April 1 and Sept. 30 were above county jail standards, and 82% of temperature readings were above the federal standard.

At the same time, improvements to climate control in prisons have generally been piecemeal. Last session, $85.7 million was set aside to build enough AC to cover roughly 11,000 inmate beds. That was a significant investment. But even after those beds are built, there will be between 85,000 and 90,000 inmate beds that will still have no AC. If the Legislature appropriates AC funds for the same number of beds every biennium, it could take decades for TDCJ to fully cover every prison.

JEREMY: Thanks for exploring this issue with me, Luis.

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