Some State Prison Cells Are Far Too Cold, Families Report

The TDCJ, which runs prisons, denies that heating systems are dysfunctional (Photo by Getty Images)

Last summer, family members and friends of inmates in Texas prisons shared accounts of the suffering their loved ones endured in cells without air conditioning. Now, some of the same families are describing frigid temperatures, open windows, and a lack of adequate blankets at various prisons during the recent arctic blast.

“My son is at Polunsky and they have no working heat in his area,” one woman wrote on a private Facebook message board on Saturday, as temperatures plummeted across the state. “He said it is already very cold back there. They are worried about the deep freeze coming.”

In dozens of other posts, families reported a lack of heat in at least 17 units or portions of units, including Henly, Coffield, Connally, Holliday, Wynne, Wainwright, Estelle, Ferguson, Lewis, and others. In some cases, such as at the Beto and McConnell units, windows that prisoners broke last summer to bring in fresh air were reported to still be open, allowing bitterly cold air to gust inside. Some said their loved ones were being denied a second blanket and wearing all their clothes in layers. One post described conditions at McConnell: “My husband said they have icicles in their window and the CO just came in and told them the water is going to be shut off for 5 hours. I know they are supposed to get an extra blanket if the weather drops to a specific temp but they haven’t done that yet either.“

The Texas Department of Criminal Justice, which runs the prisons, disputes these accounts. “Prior to the cold weather, preventative maintenance was completed on heating systems,” spokesperson Amanda Hernandez said in a statement to the Chronicle that had been shared with other media outlets. “TDCJ has not lost heat at any unit and all heating systems are fully functional. In the instance of a heating system malfunctioning, maintenance personnel are at the units to quickly make repairs. Additionally, all inmates receive insulated jackets, thermals [warm underwear], and blankets.”

The Chronicle asked Hernandez specifically about blanket supplies, whether the agency has received reports of prisoners being denied blankets, and whether there is a minimum temperature that TDCJ considers acceptable for cells. She did not answer these questions.

Three of the social media posts we reviewed did describe heaters being repaired. But roughly 100 more described excessively cold conditions. “We’ve got guys complaining that they’re shivering with the draft, that they’re not being issued thermals, they only have the one jacket, they’re not getting a second blanket,’ Charlie Malouff of Texas C.U.R.E. Inc. told us. “Some of the families are calling the units and basically the units are being dismissive. Very few are getting any actual resolution.”

Malouff and Amite Dominick of Texas Prisons Community Advocates are asking the affected inmates to file grievances with TDCJ. Malouff said TDCJ is charged with maintaining the health and safety of inmates but that some wardens ignore policy. He noted that state officials, including Gov. Greg Abbott, gave TDCJ plenty of warning about the extreme cold a week before it arrived.

“Why are two blankets and thermal underwear not issued in advance of these storms?” Malouff said. “We just suffered through some of the hottest days in Texas history when over 100 inmates and state employees died, and now the surviving victims of that excessive heat suffer [again]. It’s absurd.”

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