Thursday, July 5, 2012

Don't Mess With Texas: Prisons and Air Conditioning

If through an unfortunate series of events, I was unlucky enough to be convicted of a crime and sent to prison, I would have many concerns that I would want to address. Things like avoiding becoming someone's sexual surrogate, learning all the correct rituals around which tables to sit at, exactly when you should curse out the guards just to make people know you're not soft, how to make dangerous weaponry from plastic utensils, when it is permissible to talk to or befriend a prisoner of a different race, which territory belongs to which prison gang, staying alive, and above all getting OUT as soon as possible would be foremost on my mind.

Something that probably wouldn't be on the immediate concern list would be air conditioning. Of course I am not in prison and (knock on wood) not in a Texas prison so the issue lacks a little, shall we say, urgency for me.

But there are some people for whom this is not just an academic exercise. In fact they claim it is a matter of life and death. They are quite serious about this. It's not a joke to them. Not at all.

Inmates and their families have complained for years about the heat and lack of air-conditioning in the summertime, but the issue has taken on a new urgency. An appeal is pending in a lawsuit initially filed in 2008 by a former inmate claiming that 54 prisoners were exposed to Death Valley-like conditions at a South Texas prison where the heat index exceeded 126 degrees for 10 days indoors. And several inmates at other prisons died of heat-related causes last summer; a lawsuit was filed Tuesday in one of those deaths.A Texas law requires county jails to maintain temperature levels between 65 and 85 degrees, but the law does not apply to state prisons. The American Correctional Association recommends that temperature and humidity be mechanically raised or lowered to acceptable levels.
“The Constitution doesn’t require a comfortable prison, but it requires a safe and humane prison,” said Scott Medlock, director of the prisoners’ rights program at the Texas Civil Rights Project, which is representing the former South Texas inmate who sued prison officials. “Housing prisoners in these temperatures is brutal.”A prison agency spokesman, Jason Clark, said that many prison units were built before air-conditioning was commonly installed, and that many others built later in the 1980s and 1990s did not include air-conditioning because of the additional construction, maintenance and utility costs. Retrofitting prisons with air-conditioning would be extremely expensive, he said.
State Senator John Whitmire, a Democrat from Houston and chairman of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, said he was concerned about the inmate deaths but wanted to examine the circumstances of each. He said he was not sympathetic to complaints about a lack of air-conditioning, partly out of concern about the costs, but also out of principle.“Texans are not motivated to air-condition inmates,” he said. “These people are sex offenders, rapists, murderers. And we’re going to pay for their air-conditioning when I can’t go down the street and provide air-conditioning to hard-working, taxpaying citizens?”
Basically Whitmire hits upon something that I initially agreed with upon reading this story. If you're convicted of a felony and if you're in prison then you must have been, your comfort is not really going to be high on the state's priority list. There are special circumstances with aged or invalid prisoners where I think the state does have a special duty to ensure some level of cooling but that aside it's called prison for a reason. It's not supposed to be a comfortable pleasant environment!!! If you murdered or raped someone then really you should be thankful that you're still alive and being fed by the state instead of having a quicker and permanent solution imposed. But on the other hand the state does have a duty to ensure to the best of its ability that while you're under its control you don't do anything so final as die from heatstroke. And if you make conditions too unpleasant there's always the possibility of prison riots. And those cost money. So there's that. I would want to know more about the death stats in Texas prisons before air conditioning became widely available. Certainly in the 1920s-1940s no prisoner would have thought to sue over lack of air conditioning, would they? There are plenty of people today who lack air conditioning in their home. I don't think that someone in prison should have more comfort than someone out of prison. That messes up incentives fairly dramatically.
What's your take on this? 
Should air conditioning be made widely available in prison? 
Is it cruel and unusual punishment to live without air conditioning?

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