AUSTIN, Texas — Summer after summer, inmates haven’t been able to generate much sympathy over the sweltering conditions in prisons in tough-on-crime Texas. But prisoner advocates for the incarcerated hope they’ll have better luck with an unexpected ally: the guards who watch over them.
The oddity of prison guards joining inmates in a coming lawsuit underlies the harsh and unsafe working conditions in Texas prisons, union officials representing correctional officers say.
At least 14 inmates died of heat exposure from 2007 to 2012, according to a lawsuit brought by four of the dead inmates’ families. The temperatures inside the facilities, which lack air conditioning, regularly exceed 100 degrees in the summer months.
As for guards, so far this year, 55 correctional officers have suffered heat-related injuries or illnesses, according to Texas Department of Criminal Justice records. Last year, 92 correctional officers suffered from heat-related ailments.
“They’re death traps,” said Lance Lowry, president of the union chapter representing correctional officers. He asserted that state officials are deliberately overlooking heat-related deaths. “Some of these employees are not aware that their exposure can kill them.”
State officials say it’s simply too expensive to add air conditioning to dozens of state prison units that lack it. Criminal justice officials say they work to ensure that prisoners and inmates are safe from the heat.
Protocols in extreme heat conditions include frequent ice water breaks, using fans, allowing for additional showers, allowing inmates to wear shorts and restricting outside activity.
“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 Jason Clark, a spokesman for the criminal justice department.
Officials in the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees have said they are preparing a suit claiming unsafe working conditions, but it has not yet been filed.
A federal appellate court recently found merit in a heat-related claim, which the state then settled, giving representatives of officers and inmates alike hope that they can win the next round in court.
A 2009 lawsuit began when Eugene Blackmon, represented by the Texas Civil Rights Project, claimed temperatures were so high for so long in the South Texas prison where he was housed that it constituted unconstitutional cruel and unusual punishment.