The nation's most populous prison system, facing legal actions and criticism about inmates having to endure oppressive Texas summer heat, is looking to make conditions a bit more bearable at seven state lockups by installing cooling systems similar to those seen on the sidelines of early-season football games.
Texas Department of Criminal Justice officials insist the new cooling devices are not in response to numerous lawsuits alleging triple-digit temperature readings inside prison buildings are improperly cruel punishment and have led to inmates' deaths.
Jay Eason, the deputy director of prison and jail operations, said Friday the 28 Cool-Space evaporative coolers are "just something we thought we would try." He noted the agency buys fans every year, adding, "This year we purchased close to 700 additional fans for offender housing and work areas."
The cooling equipment employs a large fan inside about a 6-foot-by-6-foot box. Water from a hose behind the $1,800 device flows over coils that cool the air pushed by the fan. Similar devices are used at athletic events, although those often blow a mist, too.
The agency is trying the new strategy in metal dormitory buildings at the seven prison units. Three are transfer facilities where inmates are housed while awaiting permanent assignment. Four of the units are state jails. They're all part of a 109-unit corrections system that holds about 150,000 inmates.
"We've grown up in Texas, we know it's hot," Pam Baggett, warden at the 2,100-inmate Holliday Unit, a transfer facility north of Huntsville where the devices were installed in May. "We do everything we can to keep them safe and keep them well."
The latest actions are no coincidence, according to Jeff Edwards, a lawyer representing prisoners who find the heat intolerable and families who say their loved ones died behind bars because of high temperatures.
"I'm glad they're taking even a small step," Edwards said. "It's like chiseling granite, that's what happening here. There are eight wrongful death lawsuits pending and a class action lawsuit pending. "To suggest this is just a coincidence belies the facts."
Prison officials won't address the allegations in the lawsuits, saying they don't comment on pending litigation.
The federal Bureau of Justice Statistics doesn't track heat-related deaths in jails or prisons. The case of a mentally ill homeless veteran who died in February in a 100-degree Rikers Island jail cell in New York received national attention; the heat came from a malfunctioning heater.
A report issued last month by the University of Texas School of Law's Human Rights Clinic found that at least 14 inmates have died from exposure to extreme heat since 2007 in Texas lockups.
Just last week, a federal civil rights lawsuit was filed on behalf of four Texas inmates who contend their health issues are exacerbated by the heat, including an allegation they sleep on concrete floors because their metal bunks are too hot. The suit includes allegations that heat is responsible for 20 prison deaths in Texas since 1998.
"Unlike most medical problems in prison that are difficult to manage, this is a completely preventable problem," Edwards. "The suggestion that any of (improvements) would have happened without the lawsuit -- I've got a bridge in Brooklyn to sell you."
Inmates inside a dorm at the Holliday Unit appeared almost oblivious to the sticky heat Friday, laying on bunks in various stages of undress and ignoring a television mounted on a wall above the cooling device. But several said they appreciated the new fan, which blows primarily on prisoners sitting on benches in front of the TV.
"It does its job," said Donald Green, 41, of Houston, who's serving time for aggravated assault.
Other inmates said prison officers were vigilant about checking on them regularly and ensuring they were hydrated. Some also said they either grew up without air conditioning or were accustomed to the heat because of their work.
"I thought it was going to be air conditioned," said Jason Trevino, 29, of Pleasanton, who arrived more than a week ago to begin serving a term for assault. Previously, he'd been in the air-conditioned Brazos County Jail.
"But it's not bad. I'm used to it. I grew up on a ranch," Trevino said.
Agency spokesman Jason Clark said the medical, psychiatric, education and geriatric areas of prisons are air conditioned, but a cost analysis hasn't been conducted for installing air conditioning in all of Texas' prisons -- some of which are more than half a century old.
"But I can tell you it would be extremely expensive to retrofit and air condition," he said.