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Heat Continues to Plague Incarcerated Texans

Many units still don’t have air conditioning in key areas

State Rep. Carl O. Sherman Sr.
State Rep. Carl O. Sherman Sr. talks with TDJC officials during visit to Hutchins Friday, August 5, 2022, 10 am Antioch Baptist Church 7550 S. Hampton Road Dallas, Texas 75232 facility. Photo: Courtesy of Rep. Sherman

Record-breaking temperatures this week are dominating headlines as everything from wildfires to heat-related deaths plague citizens.

With the nation’s capital realizing its hottest weekend of the year last week, Texas is having its issues and Texas State Rep. Carl O. Sherman, Sr. wants to ensure that no person is overlooked, even the incarcerated.

Sherman serves on the Correc-tions Committee and his office has received several complaints about the lack of air conditioning in Texas prisons.

During a recent visit with the incarcerated TDCJ residents and employees of Hutchins Unit with Bryan Collier, Executive Director of Texas Department of Criminal Justice, Sherman toured the facility and questioned protocols.

With temperatures at such high levels, Rep. Sherman expressed concerns about conditions in the facility.

“Out of 100 active units, only 30 Texas Department of Criminal Justice prisons are fully air-conditioned,” he said. “We have a responsibility to provide humane conditions for incarcerated TDCJ citizens to live and TDCJ employees to work.”

During an Appropriations Committee hearing earlier this month Sherman focused on equipping TDCJ facilities with air conditioning units.

According to TDCJ officials, the temperatures inside some of the buildings are taken with a handheld device at 3:00p.m. daily and that count is reported. Staff receive specific training and they monitor temperatures as well.

The representative was concerned about that protocol for checking the temperature of facilities, especially when you consider those with special needs and the change in temperatures throughout the day.

In quoting from Proverbs 12:10, Rep. Sherman talked about treatment by “righteous” people. Saying he was not calling inmates animals, but in reference to the inmates he pointed out that inmates need to be treated humanely regardless of why they are incarcerated.

This issue continues to be a topic of discussion every few years, despite efforts by state legislators who in dealing with prison reform also called for the installation of air conditioning units in all facilities, with HB357.

Dial back to the 1990s and similar discussions were held and citizens even took to the airwaves as popular radio morning show host Willis Johnson on KKDA-AM fielded calls from listeners who were not so kind as some expressed their disdain for the incarcerated and were less than graceful in their offers of solutions to those weathering the sweltering heat.

At that time, Joyce Ann Brown, who had spent almost 10 years in prison weighed in and admonished callers as she talked about the treatment of the incarcerated.

“I spent nine years, five months and 24 days in prison for a crime I did not commit,” she said, adding that there are others like her but even still, whether they are guilty or not, no one should be treated worse than you’d treat an animal. “I didn’t deserve to be incarcerated and I definitely didn’t deserve to be treated less than you’d treat your dog. The incarcerated are people too and one day many of them will be free.”

She then asked if they want those who are freed to act like they were treated when they were incarcerated.

Rep. Sherman’s comments this past week echo Brown’s from more than three decades ago.

He also noted that there were some glitches in the system. “Some are guilty and some are not. We don’t always get it right.” For Sherman it was especially alarming to identify the disparity in the distribution of AC units.

“Many of the units that I’ve gone to have no AC in the housing unit but we do have AC in the warden’s office,” he said. “We have AC in the chapel, we have AC in the commissary; but we don’t have AC in the house.

Rep. Carl O. Sherman
Rep. Carl O. Sherman, inside prison. Photo: Courtesy of Rep. Sherman

“Even for the pets we’re told never to have your temperature set if you have an indoor pet, above I believe it’s 76 degrees or 78 degrees,” said Sherman. “If you go to 85 degrees it’s a danger zone.”

Texas has dealt with lawsuits and despite legislation, lack of adequate air conditioning in prisons continues to be an unresolved issue.

With the recent announcement from TDJC, however, there is hope, maybe.

In a recent editorial in The Dallas Morning News, reference to millions spent on lawsuits instead of addressing an age-old problem has citizens concerned especially as Dallas temperatures are expected to hit 109, and possibly higher, according to projections this week.

The editorial said: The Texas Department of Criminal Justice claims it will take over $1 billion to install air conditioning in all its units. This number has been
contested as overblown, and TDCJ has before inflated the cost of installing air conditioners. It said it would take $20 million for one prison. In reality, the amount was $4 million, a figure that became clear after the state spent $7 million fighting the lawsuit.

For Sherman, there are a lot of things that could be done better and he said he needs to see projections on what the fiscal impact would be, but he’s also calling for change and accountability.

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