Inmate families challenge lawmakers to spend 3 minutes in hot cells

It's unclear which Texas lawmakers will accept — and climb into a box that'll be heated to upward of 120 degrees


Lauren McGaughy
The Dallas Morning News

AUSTIN — Criminal justice advocates are challenging state lawmakers to spend three minutes in a hot mobile prison cell that will be set up at the Texas Capitol next week. 

It's unclear who'll accept — and climb into a box that'll be heated to upward of 120 degrees.

Texas Prisons Air-Conditioning Advocates, a group of inmates' families and other supporters, is hosting the "Beat the Heat Awareness Event" on Tuesday with the support of FAMM, a national criminal justice advocacy group. Casey Phillips, TPAA founder and president, said lawmakers can't expect people to be rehabilitated upon release if they're treated poorly behind bars.

"The more we meet with legislators, the more we find out they really don't know what's going on behind the walls of TDCJ, and that's a problem," said Phillips, whose husband, Justin Phillips, is serving time on drug charges at the Estelle Unit in Huntsville. "We decided to have an awareness event to not only help educate them on the issue but to also give everyone the opportunity to experience what it's really like inside the Texas prisons during the summer.

"I mean, you never know, it could be any one of us in their position one day. So, for those of you that don't think the heat is a problem, I dare you to come try it."

Rep. James White, who chairs the House Corrections Committee, will speak at the event. But he said he hasn't decided whether he'll accept Phillips' challenge.

"We may," White, R-Hillister, told The Dallas Morning News. Winking, he added, "We've been in the hot box before."

Reps. Carl Sherman, Jr., D-DeSoto, and Terry Canales, D-Edinburg, are also attending. The two House Democrats, along with Sens. José Menéndez of San Antonio and Carol Alvarado of Houston, are authoring bills to require the temperature at state jails and prisons to be kept between 65 and 85 degrees. Of the just more than 100 state-run secure facilities, about 3 in 4 lack climate control in areas where inmates live and sleep.

Seventy-nine employees and prisoners became ill between January and October 2018, an increase of nearly 13 percent since the same period the year before. At least 23 people have died behind bars from extreme temperatures since 1998, according to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

The agency claims no one has died of heatstroke in years, but an in-custody death report from December stated that an inmate at the Michael Unit in East Texas died in July from "environmental hyperthermia," according to the Texas Tribune. The agency contests the report, the Tribune wrote last month, saying the autopsy on inmate Robert Earl Robinson was not completed.

White said it's common knowledge that it's hot in Texas facilities during the summer months. A judge has already ordered that temperatures at one prison, the Wallace Pack Unit in Navasota, be kept below 88 degrees after inmates sued over the extreme heat. Now several other inmates at other units are suing.

"Common sense would say give TDCJ the tools they need to do it wherever else they think it's needed," White said.

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©2019 The Dallas Morning News

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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