Texas lawmakers decline to expand air conditioning in state prisons

Published: Jun. 23, 2021 at 6:21 PM CDT
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GATESVILLE, Texas (KWTX) - Only about one in four Texas prison beds are cooled, and state lawmakers declined to expand air conditioning this legislative session.

That has led criminal justice advocates to question the budget priorities of the state’s leaders.

“There are people in the Texas Legislature who think that being in an un-air conditioned cell is part of the punishment, and there’s some of them, frankly, that would prefer that people be staked out in the desert in an ant pile,” Scott Henson, the policy director of Just Liberty, told KWTX.

House Bill 1971 would have funneled about $100 million to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) every two years for the next three cycles to cool down all state prisons below 85 degrees.

The bill sailed through the House with strong bipartisan support but ultimately died in the Senate.

“It is a give a damn problem; nobody cares when it’s about people that have messed up,” Casey Phillips, the president of Texas Prison Air-Conditioning Advocates, told KWTX.

Phillips’ husband Justin was released from prison a few months ago.

She said his health deteriorated in a hot cell.

“He was in TDCJ; he was in the heat, and he has end-stage renal disease, and so because of the heat, he is now on dialysis,” she said.

“Basically, they took his life away from him,” she added.

Her husband’s situation led her to establish a nonprofit advocating for expanding air conditioning in the prison system.

She said that lawmakers’ inaction on the issue was not a “lack of them not having the funds to do it.”

She pointed to Gov. Abbott’s decision last week to divert $250 million from TDCJ’s budget for what the governor called a down payment on a border wall.

“There was not $250 million extra to take,” Henson said.

“They took money that would go to pay for guards, to pay for food, to pay for healthcare services,” he said.

State data from May shows that the department is down more than 5,000 guards across its units, and some facilities are barely 50% staffed.

Data from Texas Prison Air-Conditioning Advocates shows that, of the eight units in Central Texas, only one has full air conditioning, six has partial air conditioning and one has none at all.

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