Texas' prison system is the worst in the nation in terms of inmates' exposure to extreme heat, reports the Intercept. In 2020, 70 Texas prisons were not fully air conditioned, leaving 122,000 inmates at potential risk of heat exposure. 21 facilities had no air conditioning at all. Prison official Robin Hurst claims the department gives the incarcerated ice, water, fans, and access to air-conditioned areas as needed. Critics counter that the myriad health risks caused by extreme heat necessitate access for to air conditioning for all prisoners. Experts point out that people with preexisting conditions and medications have different reactions to heat, not all of which can be known to prison officials who must decide how to ration air conditioning and other heat mitigation measures. Moreover, experts emphasize that acute health issues can arise from sudden, if brief, temperature spikes.
In July and August of 2011, 10 people died of heat-related causes in Texas prisons, several of whose families brought suit. Another suit was brought by the inmates of a medical and geriatric prison called the Wallace Park Unit. Their attorney argued that the conditions violated the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and and unusual punishment, and that reasonable accommodations were not provided by the state under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Many activists place the blame on Governor Greg Abbott, who as Attorney General defended the Texas prison system from heat lawsuits, and who activists now claim impedes the legislative progress of heat-relief bills. In 2019, the first bill to provide air conditioning to all Texas prisons was introduced. In 2021, another version was introduced that passed in the House with broad bipartisan support only to falter in the Senate. Abbott set the agenda for a special legislative session last fall, where activists could not convince him to put a heat-relief bill forward, meaning no legislation will be considered until 2023. No federal laws mandate climate control in prisons, and Texas is among a host of southern states that do not require universal access to air conditioning among the incarcerated.