Last spring, Texas lawmakers have come closer than ever to a bill that would protect people incarcerated in state prisons from summer temperatures that regularly exceed 100 degrees and are expected to continue to rise with the climate crisis.
“It’s like being in a walk-in closet on one of the hottest days of the year with another person for maybe 16 to 18 hours a day,” said Tracy Williams, who was released from prison in last December after 25 years and now works for the Texas Inmate Families Association. “Sometimes you have to rinse off and lie on the ground trying to catch a breeze.”
The hot weather has been the cause of the deaths of many inmates over the years, leaving thousands more in conditions characterized as torture. In response, a movement of family members of incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people has repeatedly pushed bills through the state legislature demanding climate control in detention centers. Following a cold snap last winter that showed extreme temperatures can go either way, last spring’s version passed through Texas House before dying unsupervised on a Senate committee.
Now, with a special 30-day legislative session launched this week, advocates see a rare opportunity to use federal funding from the Covid-19 stimulus package to pay for prison climate control infrastructure that Texas has long deemed too expensive. . House Bill 88 would require state prisons to maintain temperatures between 65 and 85 degrees and install new air conditioning with air purification technology designed to reduce the spread of viruses. A separate appropriation bill would save the US bailout money to pay for it. In Texas prisons, 265 incarcerated people have died from Covid-19, along with 63 staff members.
Even as advocates try to control the temperature to help state incarcerated people endure climate catastrophe, another bill would create a special exclusion that would allow counties to leave immigrant inmates in dangerous heat and cold. .
“It seems the Governor’s trajectory is to jail anything he can under the worst conditions.”
Since the Texas legislature only meets every two years, the stakes in the 30-day session are high. Whether those incarcerated in Texas will begin to see weather conditions more conducive to survival over the next two years – or worse than ever – could be determined over the next few weeks.
Republican Gov. Greg Abbott appears to be opposed to creating better conditions for inmates, advocates said. “It looks like the governor’s trajectory is to jail anything he can under the worst conditions,” said Amite Dominick, president of Texas Prison Community Advocates, which is campaigning to push lawmakers to finally pass the bill. air conditioning law.
The bill that could leave immigrants in heat and cold dates back to Abbott’s anti-immigrant Operation Lone Star. Over the summer, as a growing climate catastrophe gripped much of the country, the governor instead declared a disaster in Texas due to migration along the Texas border. Widely seen as a political move to push Abbott’s presidential hopes, the state has made nearly $ 2 billion available for “border security efforts,” including to help sheriff’s offices arrest immigrants for misdemeanor rather than immigration charges.
Typically, such charges would land a person in a county jail, where they would await trial or post bail. Unlike state prisons, these prisons have standards that include a requirement for temperatures between 65 and 85 degrees. To cope with the influx of immigrants arrested by law enforcement authorities in border counties, the state is reassigning state prison units, where there are no climate standards. In short: if an undocumented immigrant broke the law in certain counties, rather than going to a county jail, he would go to a separate facility with worse conditions.
Placing immigrants in state prisons is already creating worse conditions than they would face in county jails, said Alicia Torres, a member of Grassroots Leadership’s ICE Out of Austin group, which helps immigrant detainees. The new bill would make conditions even worse, including allowing state prisons acting on behalf of county governments to waive the climate control requirement. According to Bethany Carson, head of policy and research for Grassroots Leadership, the bill “could be used to justify the lack of almost all the basic needs that would make it more expensive to create these facilities.”
“The standards protect the health and safety of people in prison. To say that some people deserve it and others don’t is morally repugnant at best.
Michele Deitch, an expert on prison and prison conditions at the University of Texas at Austin, said prison standards were created primarily to protect counties from lawsuits. “These are not high standards,” she said. “I think the counties should be really worried. This could expose them to liability in many different ways. (Texas already pays a hefty annual bill to fight lawsuits brought by people outside the immigration system who have been affected by extreme heat conditions in state prisons.)
Beyond avoiding prosecution, Deitch said, “The standards protect the health and safety of those in prison. To say that some people deserve it and others don’t is morally repugnant at best.
In the best case for incarcerated persons, the bill deviating from prison standards for immigrants would fail, while the climate control bill for state prisoners would succeed.
The availability of federal funds helps address the repeated – and exaggerated – excuse of detractors that climate control is too expensive. There is even precedent in New Hampshire for federal Covid-19 relief funds to be used to install ventilation systems in state prisons.
“The people inside are still human,” said Williams, the former incarcerated person who now works with people re-entering society after prison. “Yes, a lot of us made bad decisions. We messed up. But would you like to put your dog or animal in a hot car? You wouldn’t do that.