AUSTIN (KXAN) — Over the 10 years Benny Hernandez III was locked in Texas prisons, the summers were always the hardest.
“I would literally dread the summer months,” Hernandez said.
Like many Texas prisoners, Hernandez spent his entire sentence in facilities without air conditioning.
Just a quarter of Texas’ state prisons – 28 of 107 – have air conditioning throughout the unit. It isn’t just uncomfortable, the extreme heat can be deadly. Heat stroke was the official cause of death for six inmates since 2007, according to the Texas Justice Initiative. Recent lawsuits have estimated heat-related deaths could be more than twice as high.
Despite entering the system young and with no preexisting health concerns, there were times Hernandez was certain the heat was killing him.
He woke up one summer morning in the Coffield Prison Unit in East Texas feeling ill.
“I got up one day, and I felt dizzy,” he said. “I thought that I had heatstroke.”
His cellmate alerted a correctional officer, who told him to pour water on his forehead and lay down in his cell. Hernandez was not given medical attention or taken to an air-conditioned part of the facility.
“I felt sick, and I honestly felt like I was going to die,” Hernadez said. “I just knew that my body was simply shut down. It couldn’t deal with the heat anymore.”
‘Too hot to touch’
Michele Deitch, a criminal justice professor at the University of Texas Law School, said the temperatures inside these prisons can reach triple digits during the summer months and put inmates like Hernandez at risk of a stroke and other heat-related illnesses.
“The temperatures can exceed anything that any of us on the outside have ever experienced,” she said. “We’re routinely in excess of 110, 120, 130 degrees, and metal furniture becomes too hot to touch.”
Dr. Amite Dominick of Texas Prison Community Advocates, formerly known as Texas Prisons Air-Conditioning Advocates, said the extreme heat inside prisons often leads prisoners to take drastic measures to cool down.
“Things like flooding the toilet and wetting down your floor, you can get a case for that, which can affect your parole,” Dominick said. “So, some of the options that they’re trying to take, they can actually get in trouble for.”
Hernandez said inmates were sometimes punished for lying on the floor of their cell or removing layers of clothing during the hottest parts of the summer.
“You’re not supposed to sleep on the floor of your cell, because you’re assigned a bunk,” he said. “But the concrete floor, when you put a little water on it, is a lot cooler than a steel bunk.”
Hernandez said official practices for cooling down were often ineffective, especially when he first entered the prison in 2011.
“They placed a 10-gallon cooler in the dayroom for 88 people,” Hernandez said.
Prisoners were expected to get water from the cooler in cups they bought themselves at the prison commissary. Indigent prisoners who could not afford to purchase one had to resort to alternative methods to drink water, he said.
“They were digging through the trash for an empty bottle and would wash it out and get cold water in it,” Hernandez said.
However, Dominick said even if they have access to water, it might not be clean.
“I get reports of things like bugs, roaches and stuff like that in the water,” she said.
Dominick said extreme heat conditions can lead to a domino effect of health crises throughout a facility.
She said many prisoners choose not to take their medication, many of which impact the body’s ability to naturally regulate temperature, because of the heat in the prisons.
“They have to make a choice between, do I take this medication or do I maybe have a heat stroke or have a heart attack or other symptoms of my ailments?” Dominick said.
Dominick believes these medication issues have distorted the number of people reported to have died of extreme heat in Texas prisons.
“If we’ve got a choice between hyperthermia (heat stroke) and cardiac arrest, they’re going to go with cardiac arrest, but the heat was still a major contributing factor in that death,” Dominick said.
Prison officials told KXAN all unattended inmate deaths are investigated by the Texas Board of Criminal Justice’s Office of Inspector General, and all autopsies are performed by independent practitioners.
The cost of cooling
Hernandez said the summer heat caused people within the unit to become more agitated and violent during periods of extreme heat.
“During the summertime, tempers were short, and people knew that,” he said. “The wrong thing said and the wrong thing done could lead to physical violence.”
Dominick advocates for air conditioning in all units within the Texas Department of Criminal Justice with an acceptable cooling range between 65 and 85 degrees year-round. However, attempts to codify this recommendation into law in the Texas Legislature have historically been unsuccessful, mostly due to the cost. TDCJ claims cooling all Texas prisons would cost $1 billion.
But, TDCJ has overestimated air conditioning costs for individual units before. The Wallace Pack Unit, a geriatric Texas prison South of College Station, was the subject of a 2017 lawsuit that ended in an order requiring TDCJ to install air conditioning in the facility. Originally TDCJ claimed the renovation would cost $11 million. The final cost of adding air conditioning totaled around $4 million.
“It’s not an insignificant cost, although no one can agree on exactly what that is,” Deitch said. “TDCJ will tell you it’s billions of dollars. That seems to be a wildly exaggerated figure based on what the cost in a couple of the facilities so far has been.”
In a statement, TDCJ said despite not having air conditioning in these facilities, they still take measures against extreme heat.
“TDCJ takes precautions to help reduce heat-related illnesses such as providing water and ice to staff and inmates in work and housing areas, restricting inmate activity during the hottest parts of the day and training staff to identify those with heat-related illnesses and refer them to medical staff for treatment,” according to the prison system.
Dominick said even with these precautions, the treatment of prisoners is inhumane.
“How is it that we can continue to allow this to happen to human beings, and we will not allow that to happen to animals? Pigs have AC. Dogs have AC.” Dominick said. “In society, if you leave your dog in a car in those temperatures, you’re going to receive charges.”