In a stormy Texas prison, cool towels but no air conditioners

EDINBURG, Texas — Heat rash is common. Metal furniture is warm to the touch. Hyperthermia and dehydration are a constant risk, mitigated by fans, warm water and wet towels. Deaths, although rare, have occurred.

That’s life most of the summer inside Texas’ sweltering prisons, most of which lack air conditioning for inmates despite the state’s increasingly extreme temperatures.

For the men locked in dormitories at Lopez State Prison, dripping and desperate, a record-setting heat wave this summer has created a feeling of misery bordering on despair.

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“You feel like you’re walking through hell,” said Gary Crawford, 44, an inmate from Houston who was wearing a sleeveless undergarment in the dormitory he shares with dozens of other inmates on a day when the prison temperature reached 91 degrees.

On a recent weekday inside the minimum-security facility, about 30 miles from the Mexican border, inmates wore yellow “cooling towels” around their necks and wiped beads of sweat from their hands and faces.

“Everybody’s always on edge,” said David Guerra, 42, of San Antonio, who has been at Lopez for nearly a year.

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

The state is coming off the second hottest summer on record, with an average daily temperature of 97.4 degrees. The area around Lopez State Prison 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 2011 heat wave, according to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. The last documented death at the prison was in 2012. This year, 12 inmates and 21 staff members suffered from heat-related illnesses, corrections officials said, although some family members and inmate advocates said they believe the number of illnesses that related to heat was higher.

Although the Texas prison system has undergone court-ordered reforms, the new prisons have not received additional funding for air conditioning, prison officials said. There has been little political push in the state’s conservative legislature to spend tax dollars on inmate air conditioning.

However, the state requires some inmates to have air conditioning: those housed in county-run jails, which often house inmates awaiting trial. The Texas Commission on Jail Standards, a state agency, requires all county jails to maintain temperatures between 65 and 85 degrees. But that standard does not apply to state prisons.

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

The New York Times was granted access to Lopez Prison this month during a state lawmaker’s fact-finding tour, a rare glimpse into a system that is usually closed to visitors.

“We can do better,” said Rep. Terry Canales, a Democrat whose district includes Lopez Prison. He toured the prison ahead of the next legislative session, with plans to introduce new legislation to air-condition prisons. A bill he introduced in 2021 passed the Texas House of Representatives but died in the Senate. Both bodies are controlled by Republicans.

The Texas Department of Criminal Justice, which oversees the state’s 98 prisons and roughly 120,000 inmates, has a plan to fully air-condition prisons by the end of the decade at a cost of $1.1 billion. But it has yet to secure funding from the Legislature.

Inside Lopez, there is air conditioning in the hallways, but not in the dorms that house inmates. Entering one of the cool aisles means you’ll experience a burst of heat and humidity that most people only experience when climbing into a car parked in the sun on an extremely hot day.

During the visit, the prisoners were visibly sweating. Ismael Carrillo Gomez, 32, of San Antonio, developed what he said was heat-related redness on his hands as he stood near his bunk shirtless — a rule violation, though officials said it was not enforced. (“If they have to take their shirt off, we’re not going to write disciplinary cases for that,” said Jason Clark, chief of staff for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.)

Industrial fans were installed on the floors and ceilings as part of the state’s heat mitigation strategy, but inmates, who sleep in bunks and socialize in an open space with benches and tables, complained that the fans only recirculated hot air. The lights in the dormitory were turned off intermittently during the day, an obvious attempt to reduce the heat.

Inmates can request to be taken to “rest” areas in air-conditioned sections of the jail, and officials said they had access to ice and water. How often such requests for recess are granted was not immediately clear, but Texas Prisons Community Advocates, an inmate advocacy group, said it had reports of inmates who asked to go on recess but were not allowed to.

The men described the heat and humidity as a constant drain on their psyche, emotions and outlook, making them irritable and moody and increasing the prospect of fights. Good sleep is rare, they said. Some preferred to sleep on the floor where it was cooler.

“No one is going to say there was a fight because you got frustrated because of the heat,” Guerra said. “It’s always going to be another issue that led to this. But the heat causes it.”

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