Talk about unlikely bedfellows.
The union that represents Texas’ correctional officers has reportedly announced its support of lawsuits filed over the deaths of at least 14 inmates in sweltering state prisons, claiming the institutions should be cooled to relieve unbearable conditions.
Lance Lowry, president of the local American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees, said the union intends to join pending litigation, including a possible request for federal court intervention over temperatures inside prisons that purportedly reach 130 degrees on some summer days, the Austin American-Statesman reports.
“These conditions are dangerous to both the employees and the inmates,” Lowry said, noting that it’s highly unusual for officers and convicted criminals to agree on litigation against the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. “It’s time for the state to modernize its system … at least to comply with its own standard for county jails that say the temperature can’t exceed 85 [degrees].”
Brian McGiverin, an attorney for the Austin-based Texas Civil Rights Project, said having correctional officers behind the push for air-conditioning systems to be installed could be the final straw to making it a reality, despite the fact that the union has a small membership among the 30,000 correctional employees at 109 state prisons throughout the state.
Prison officials, meanwhile, disputed the suggestion that summer conditions inside prisons are dangerous.
“The well-being of staff and offenders is a top priority for the agency and we remain committed to making sure that both are safe during the extreme heat,” said prisons spokesman Jason Clark told the newspaper. “TDCJ takes precautions to help reduce heat-related illnesses such as providing water and ice to staff and offenders in work and housing areas, restricting offender activity during the hottest parts of the day, and training staff to identify those with heat-related illnesses and refer them to medical staff for treatment.”
The cost of air-conditioning units has been estimated at more than $55 million. Prison officials said several months ago that there are no current plans to install additional units at Texas prisons, where only 19 medical units and special-needs lockups are now cooled.
Lowry said working in temperatures that hover near 100 degrees during summertime can be dangerous – and potentially deadly for officers taking heat-sensitive medication or those who have hypertension.
“It feels like you’re working inside a convection oven,” said Lowry, a 13-year veteran. And the large fans that have been installed in prisons, “just blow hot air … . The noise can drown out cries for help, even calls on the radio.”