Air-condition Texas prisons!

An Open Letter To:

The Hon. Greg Abbott, Governor of the State of Texas
The Hon. Dan Patrick, Lieutenant Governor and President of the Senate
The Hon. Members of the Texas Senate

A July 9 editorial in the Austin American-Statesman alerted its readers to the fact that of the 128,000 or so prisoners incarcerated in Texas prisons, only about 42,000 sleep in air-conditioned cells. Only 31% of the state's prisons provide air conditioning for prisoners as of May of this year, which has been one of the hottest ones in recent memory.

Just a few weeks ago, facing a $32 billion state surplus, the Texas House voted to spend less than 2 percent of that sum on the project of air-conditioning most Texas prisons. At long last, the state which witnessed the first air-conditioned church building (First Presbyterian in Orange, Texas in 1914) and the first custom air-conditioned automobile, was going to extend the benefits of that characteristically Texas technology to its prisoners.

But to your shame, Texas Senators and Lt. Gov. Patrick, you declined to act on that measure, and to the extent Gov. Abbott failed to make it a priority during the special sessions, he shares some of the blame.

Here are some objections I can think of to air-conditioning Texas prisons, with the rebuttals to each:

* It costs too much to retrofit old structures to be air-conditioned. It didn't cost too much to retrofit the nineteenth-century pile called the Texas Capitol so that legislators could work in air-conditioned comfort back in 1955. And 2 percent of the surplus doesn't strike me as "too much."

* Prisons haven't had air conditioning before now, so why change? By that argument, we should never have installed indoor plumbing or electricity in them either. If primitive conditions are what we want prisoners to have, why not make them go to the bathroom in open latrines and rely on kerosene lanterns? Then we can add plagues of cholera and fires to heat prostration and the other hazards prisoners experience already.


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* Many prisoners work outside in hot conditions anyway, so they're used to it. Some people got used to living in Nazi or Soviet prison camps, too, but that doesn't mean it was a good thing. Most farmers and other outdoor workers manage to work in air-conditioned equipment and environments whenever possible. Withholding air conditioning all of the time because it can't be experienced some of the time is illogical.

* Prison staff have to endure the heat too. I am willing to wager that the chief official of each prison has an air-conditioned office. The Statesman cites a 40 percent turnover rate for lower-level prison employees, which the lack of air conditioning surely contributes to. If we simply passed a law that the average temperature in the warden's office cannot be more than two degrees less than that in the hottest cell, we would see a revolution in prison budgets overnight, even those operated by contractors, directing funds toward air-conditioning prison cells.

Many of you legislators make much of your Christianity. Do you think God wasn't looking when you neglected to take up the prison air-conditioning bill? Didn't Jesus say, "Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was... in prison and you did not visit me"? Air conditioning isn't mentioned by name in that list, but I don't think any of you are literalist enough to miss the implications.

I lived in Massachusetts for many years before returning to my native Texas, in large part because of the Christian-influenced culture that in many ways reflects my deepest beliefs about life and the universe. And I still think Texas is the better place to live, at least if you're not in prison. But if anyone from out of state asks me why Texas, of all places, the leader in the development of air conditioning, has failed to apply this blessing of humanity to some of its most neglected residents — its prisoners — I can only hang my head in shame.

Besides the moral aspect, there are practical ones too. Sooner or later, confinement to an un-air-conditioned cell in South Texas will lead a lawyer to convince a judge and jury that such is "cruel and unusual punishment," and the Feds will take over the prisons. Nobody wants that, not even the prisoners, probably. So before it's too late — and as your average age is 60, too late may be sooner than you think — remedy this sin of omission, and air-condition Texas prisons.

Karl D. Stephan, Professor
Ingram School of Engineering
Texas State University


Karl D. Stephan is a professor in the Ingram School of Engineering at Texas State University, San Marcos.

This article has been republished with permission from the author’s blog, Engineering Ethics.

Image credit: Pexels

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  • mrscracker
    I don’t think Texas is unique in this. I certainly don’t want any inmate to suffer heatstroke but plenty of folks have to work outside in this nasty weather & it’s true that correctional facility employees outside of the higher ups endure the same lack of AC.
    I actually spoke with an inmate recently who was complaining about this issue. Their pod’s AC was on the fritz but I reminded them it could be worse, they could be in TX or Louisiana instead.