Air Conditioning Is a Human Right

Jeff Edwards and Scott Medlock July 21, 2016
Air Conditioners are desperately needed throughout Alabama's prison system
Air Conditioners are desperately needed throughout Alabama’s prison system

Edwards and Medlock are trial lawyers with Edwards Law in Austin.

Texas, like other states, does not air condition its prisons—and by doing so, it kills people.

In 2011, the State of Texas convicted Larry McCollum of forgery, for passing a bad check. He was supposed to serve a short prison sentence of two years, then go home to his family. Instead, the conditions inside Texas prisons gave him a death sentence. He died of heat stroke—indoors.

Over 120,000 beds in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice system do not have air conditioning, including the Hutchins State Jail near Dallas, where Mr. McCollum was imprisoned. As a result, the indoor heat index—the combination of temperature and humidity—frequently exceeds 100 degrees on hot summer days. Shortly before Mr. McCollum died, the Hutchins’ warden received multiple emails from the risk manager, who took a thermometer around to the dorms, stating the temperature inside the inmate dormitories reached 102 degrees by early afternoon, and that the heat index inside was likely 123. While Mr. McCollum baked inside his dormitory, his body temperature rose to 109.4. Eventually, his body began to seize, and he was hospitalized. When his wife and adult children were summoned, they learned his body temperature had permanently damaged his brain, and he would not survive.

According to the National Weather Service, in an average year, heat kills more people than floods, lightning, tornadoes and hurricanes combined. In all, during the past 18 years, over 20 men have died with the cause of death of heat stroke inside prison buildings constructed and maintained by the State of Texas. Though the count is likely much higher: When temperatures go over 90 degrees, the medical risk of heat stroke increases markedly, and it can lead to other causes of death, especially for people with certain common medical conditions like diabetes, high blood pressure, or asthma, or who take certain medications, including most mental health prescriptions.

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The warden refuses to listen to cries for help.

I was just released form the Montgomery Women’s Facility yesterday, 06/07/2016. The medical staff there has got to be the worst in the world. I spent 1 1/2 years in pain and sick only to find out last month I had “some kind” of mass in my side. I was given meds that I was allergic to, causing serious side effects. I have witnessed individuals become ill and need immediate attention and told to put in a sick call.

The heat inside the warehouse is over 100 degrees as we speak. Yet when organizations offer to donate a/c systems they are turned down even though women are falling out with heat exhaustion. Rules change not just on a daily basis but on the same shift from officer to officer. Why? Because the officers are allowed to run this camp, not a warden.

This facility is supposed to be for work release, yet over half are not. This facility currently houses 300 people in an 75 x 95 tin building. It is filthy, over run with rats, roaches and flies. The septic system must be emptied at least once a month and the fumes are toxic. There is a constant gas leak outside the building that causes nausea and head aches.

The water is from the prison next door and is constantly being shut off. State jobs are not assigned to age appropriate individuals. Often women over 50 will be put on outside/inside grounds working harder than some men. Not only are women punished for infractions with write ups they then must do extra duty. Does not matter if you are smoking in an unauthorized area or have a dirty urine the punishment is the same.

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Chow time, Supplies, Scamming Money and Warehouse Living. An inmates account of day to day living at Montgomery Women’s Facility

Chow Time

We have 300 inmates here and roughly 200-250 of us eat in the chow hall. They claim to give us 15 minutes to eat but they give us only 5 -7 minutes. We barely chew our food. We’ve learned just to eat as fast as we can and swallow without barely chewing the food. The food comes out of the server so hot it burns our mouths. All we get are starches. We get 1 apple a month and 1 orange a month. Breakfast, the most important meal, they give us 2 tablespoons of eggs, ¼ cup of grits or oatmeal and 1 biscuit that is the size of a golfball.

Chow time, supplies and warehouse living at Montgomery Women's Facility
Chow time, supplies and warehouse living at Montgomery Women’s Facility

We used to get desserts at lunch and dinner, but they cut the desserts down to 4 times a week. The stewardess alters the menu all the time. We are not fed according to the food pryimid. On 2nd shift the officers argue who is going to feed us. We’re supposed to eat at 04:30 but we don’t get fed till almost 5 and then we are yelled at the whole time whilst eating and are rushed to eat.

SUPPLIES – We’re supposed to get 1 bottle of shampoo, 4 bars of soap, deodorant, 1 razor, 1 tube of shower cream. The black folks get a shampoo and conditioner for their hair as well as hair grease, but the officer in charge of our supplies never orders enough. Today we ran out of the bottles of shampoo for white people and when the officer was asked, what was we who got no shampoo to do, her reply was “I guess you won’t have any shampoo”. We’re supposed to get supplies every 30 days, yet our supplies are every 45 days. This same officer was supposed to give us 3 pairs of state shorts along with 3 t-shirts, but she gave us only 1 pair of shorts and 1 t-shirt.

The other 2 female prisons got their 3 shorts and 3 t-shirts. We’re also supposed to get 2 pairs of shorts pyjamas and 2 pyjama pants, yet we get none of either. We get 6 panties 4 bras every 6 months. The panties tear up within a week and she never has our size. The panties are either too small or too big. The bras for big girls are rarely available, size 40 or bigger. We get sports bras, either too big or too small. I am out of panties altogether but cannot get any for another 4 months, so now i go without, which is against regs, yet its not my fault that i can’t get anymore.

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