HUNTSVILLE, Texas - The most populous prison system in the U.S., facing legal actions and criticism about inmates having to endure oppressive Texas summer heat, is looking to make conditions a bit more bearable at seven locations by installing basic cooling systems.
Texas Department of Criminal Justice officials insist the new devices are not in response to numerous lawsuits alleging that high temperatures inside prison buildings are improperly cruel punishment and have led to inmates' deaths.
A report issued last month by the University of Texas School of Law's Human Rights Clinic found that at least 14 inmates have died from exposure to extreme heat since 2007 in Texas prisons.
Just last week, a federal civil rights lawsuit was filed on behalf of four Texas inmates who contend their health issues are exacerbated by the heat, including an allegation they sleep on concrete floors because their metal bunks are too hot. The suit includes allegations that heat is responsible for 20 prison deaths in Texas since 1998.
Agency spokesman Jason Clark said the medical, psychiatric, education and geriatric areas of prisons are air conditioned, but a cost analysis hasn't been conducted for installing air conditioning in all of Texas' prisons — some of which are more than half a century old.
"But I can tell you it would be extremely expensive to retrofit and air condition," he said
The federal Bureau of Justice Statistics doesn't track heat-related deaths in jails or prisons.
Prison officials won't address the allegations in the lawsuits, saying they don't comment on pending litigation.
Jay Eason, the deputy director of prison and jail operations, said Friday the 28 evaporative coolers are "just something we thought we would try."
The seven units with the cooling systems are part of a 109-unit corrections system that holds about 150,000 inmates.
The actions are no coincidence, according to Jeff Edwards, a lawyer representing prisoners who find the heat intolerable and families who say their loved ones died behind bars because of high temperatures.
"I'm glad they're taking even a small step," Edwards said. "It's like chiseling granite, that's what happening here. There are eight wrongful death lawsuits pending and a class action lawsuit pending.
"To suggest this is just a coincidence belies the facts."
Inmates inside a dorm at the Holliday Unit appeared almost oblivious to the sticky heat Friday, laying on bunks in various stages of undress and ignoring a television mounted on a wall above the cooling device. But several said they appreciated the new fan, which blows primarily on prisoners sitting on benches in front of the TV.
"It does its job," said Donald Green, 41, who's serving time for aggravated assault.
Other inmates said prison officers were vigilant about checking on them regularly and ensuring they were hydrated. Some also said they either grew up without air conditioning or were accustomed to the heat because of their work.
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