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Bills To Combat Sweltering Prison Conditions Back In Texas Legislature Despite Past Legal Battle

Part of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice's William G. McConnell Unit in Beeville, Texas, stands at sunset Wednesday, April 15, 2020. More than 26,000 people have been locked down in 22 Texas prisons that are keeping prisoners in their cells in an effort to contain the coronavirus, according to the TDCJ's most recent numbers. The McConnell Unit is not one of the 22.
Eric Gay
Associated Press
Part of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice's William G. McConnell Unit in Beeville, Texas. State lawmakers spent several years and $7 million fighting against making climate control improvements at Texas prisons, despite the fact that the improvements would have only cost $ 4 million.

After fighting a $7 million years-long legal battle that resulted in a 2018 settlement, Texas lawmakers are once again reconsidering proposed laws that would equip state corrections facilities with climate control and air conditioning.

The House Committee on Corrections is considering several bills that would address the temperature issues in these facilities by installing climate-control systems, air-conditioning and modernized infrastructure.

The bills that would instate these measures are HB342, HB357, HB1921 and HB1971. Wednesday, Texans were able to share their thoughts at a committee hearing.

Most of the people who testified on these bills called it “common sense,” and repeatedly asked lawmakers to attempt to spend 10 minutes in these facilities before making any decisions.

Levina Iqbani described the precautions she had to take to keep cool in the extremely hot conditions she faced when serving time in a Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) prison.

“I will never forget my personal experience while serving time at TDCJ," Iqbani said. "During the summers, trying to get cool to keep from passing out. Wetting my sheet, lying naked and putting a wet sheet on top of me, just to try and cool off. Within 30 minutes, my sheet would be dry.”

Other people who testified, like Lauren Johnson from the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, compared the living conditions inmates endure, to how the state treats animals.

“If these were dogs or animals, we wouldn’t be allowed to care for them this way,” Johnson said.

Oftentimes, the high levels of heat in TDCJ facilities lead to frequent hospital visits. Between January and October of 2018, 79 prisoners and staff members were reported to have suffered from a heat-related illness in Texas corrections facilities.

Charles Roberts who testified for the bill, told lawmakers these heat-related illnesses are underreported.

“There’s no oversight. I’ve said this before, everything that happens on the prison level is not what is being reported to you,” Roberts said. “If you want to know the truth about how many people get taken to the emergency room at each of these units, look back and see what the hottest days were, and don’t ask TDCJ for a report, call the hospital.”

Federal lawsuits argued the cost of installing air-conditioning in prisons would cost $20 million, but Amite Dominick, from Texas Prisons Air-Conditioning Advocates recommended closing old facilities to save money.

"Some of these units that are 100 years old, we could potentially save money by closing those units," Dominick said. "Then, by the third term, hopefully they’re closed and you have $100 million.”

The House Committee on Corrections will continue to hear testimony, before a vote. If passed, it will go to the House floor.

Got a tip? Email Haya Panjwani at Follow Haya on Twitter @hayapanjw.

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Haya Panjwani is a general assignment reporter for KUT. She also served as a legislative fellow for The Texas Newsroom during the 2021 legislative session.