The Brutality of Heat in TDCJ

As you may have figured out, I have a loved one who is incarcerated. While I won’t get into the specifics of why at this time, I will tell you he made a terrible mistake and broke the law and is being punished for what he did.  There was no consideration made for his mental state or anything else and because we didn’t have the means to afford a decent attorney, he was slapped with what I believe to be a terribly unfair sentence. Lots of people locked up in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) will tell you that they either didn’t do whatever it is they’ve been convicted of or they were involved to a lesser degree than what they’ve been convicted of – that isn’t the case with my loved one. He has owned up to his mistakes and would do anything to be able to change the past. He works every single day to atone for his mistakes and better himself to prepare for life after prison.

So that brings us to today – a normal, hot Texas day in mid-July. Today we broke the heat record with a recorded temperature outside of 108° and even in my air-conditioned office and home it is warmer than normal with the cooling system working overtime to try and keep it a reasonable 74-76° inside. Now I want you to imagine not having access to cool off in an air conditioned building. And not just any building, typically a poorly insulated and inadequately ventilated steel or concrete building. Now if you ask the Ombudsman about what is inmates can do to keep cool, they’ll give you the canned policy of ensuring prisoners have access to plenty of water and ice, saying they can use showers to cool off and how they keep fans on to vent the hot air. What is even more sad is that it’s not just the inmates suffering, it’s the Correctional Officers too. How is this okay for either an inmate or a CO?

Last year there was a lot of hoopla around the class action law suit brought by several prisoners against the Pack Unit and a Federal judge finding the conditions deplorable and ruling against TDCJ. Sadly, the only thing that has come out of that is the promise by TDCJ to air condition that unit with the settlement that was agreed upon to keep the 1300 prisoners involved in the law suit in units with air conditioning. Read more about that in one of the many Texas Tribune articles covering the saga. But what about the other 140k inmates in TDCJ? And even more in county jails who are also often not air conditioned? When temperatures outside soar over 100°, temperatures are often 10-20° hotter inside the un-air conditioned units. The only relief my loved one said he can find is to wet his clothes and shower as often as he can. At night, he takes his mattress off his bunk and sleeps on the bare metal because it’s cooler. He is on what is knows as a transfer unit which is considered temporary (even though he’s been there over a year) so he can’t even buy a personal fan to use to help cool off.  There are two fans in his entire dorm. One is a large shop style fan that doesn’t really get any air through it because of it’s proximity to the wall and the other is a small fan about the size of a box fax mounted on the wall only pointed at certain bunks where there are inmates with heat “restrictions”. There is also a large exhaust fan that pulls air in from outside…where it’s over 100 degrees. Makes no sense and I cannot even imagine. When we go to visitation, even in an air conditioned room it is 80 or more. There are conveniently no visible thermostats but if they’re having trouble with their AC units, it gets hot QUICK.

I’ve taken to social media before to rant about what I consider to be inhumane conditions and been shocked at the vitriol I’ve received from family and friends who honestly believe these men and women are getting what they deserve. Really? I’d like to sit here and say I can’t wrap my head around that line of thinking but the truth is before my personal experience, I was one of them. You see, before I loved someone who was flawed and had been in and out of the system, I couldn’t fathom how someone would ever land in prison unless they were just a bad person. I’ve been going to church my whole life but instead of seeing people the way Jesus does, I saw them as they’re portrayed by the world. Bad people who did bad things who should be punished.

Then someone came into my life that challenged that way of thinking. He was someone who had been in and out of the system most of his adult life. Early on, he was in the military but suffered from untreated bipolar depression and succumbed to self medicating with various addictions. Not that those things excuse any of his behavior – but instead of rehabilitating him, as prison should do, it made things worse. To admit you have a mental illness, you lose the possibility of becoming a trustee who can earn more good time credits and work outside the fence. You have enhanced supervision, simply because you have an illness. How that isn’t discrimination, I’ll never understand. I watched him struggle for years and finally get the help he needed (no thanks at all to any Texas program or system), only to lose his insurance and medical care and slip right back into old habits and that landed him in his present situation.

I found myself angry and confused when he ended up in this predicament. I though, how could he do this to his family? And then it struck me, I am the exact same way every time I choose sin – his sin is no worse or better than mine. Humans are the ones who place “levels” on sin. By no means am I saying that there should be no consequences for crimes committed. What I am saying is, why don’t those consequences enhance public safety and rehabilitate people so they don’t keep falling into the same old patterns? Why as one of the most “civilized” countries in the world do we have the largest prison population? Why do we insist on treating the incarcerated like property? Did you know in most places, prisoners aren’t considered citizens, they’re considered property of the state? Slavery was abolished in 1865 with the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution and yet, this is a completely accepted practice.

So back to the brutality of heat in TDCJ – can you honestly say this isn’t a brutal and unfair practice? Truly? And what do you do about it when you just feel so helpless? Every time the heat soars in the summer, my heart grows heavy with sadness for the incarcerated men and women along with the Corrections Officers enduring the searing temperatures. I used to think that if I wrote enough letters, talked to enough people that maybe something would change. But it’s been years and the most I’ve gotten is acknowledgments of receipt of letters or an occasional phone call. So you quit writing letters, making phone calls.

I’ve decided the best thing I can do is show love and compassion directly to those I know who are incarcerated or impacted by someone they love being incarcerated. The state isn’t going to step up and do anything soon; if nothing else the Pack Unit lawsuit proves that in my eyes. So as a follower of Jesus, I am choosing to do what I can. I can share my story. I can have a direct impact on my loved one. I can perhaps start a movement and non-profit to help others. I can encourage you to sign the petition started by Texas Inmates Families Association (TIFA – a great organization and resource for anyone in a similar situation) and perhaps help point a spotlight on this brutality being committed here in this once great nation of ours. And finally I can pray and ask you to join my in prayer – asking for some manner of relief for these men and women who have no opportunity for any immediate reprieve from the brutal Texas heat.

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