By Keri Blakinger
Prisoners' families have fielded complaints about chilly conditions.
Just months after taking a hit in federal court for refusing to provide air conditioning for heat-sensitive inmates, Texas prison officials on Wednesday denied multiple complaints of unheated and under-heated units at roughly two dozen prisons amid a near-historic cold snap.
Prisoner advocates in recent days have fielded dozens of reports of insufficient heating from concerned families of Texas Department of Criminal Justice inmates locked up at facilities from North Texas to the Rio Grande Valley. Some reported no heat at all and others complained that only cold air came out.
"Historically, I've heard complaints in the winter about the prisons being cold," said state Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston. "I'm told by prison officials they're all heated, but in some of the older units you might have some failures."
Despite the slew of reports of unheated units from across the state, TDCJ spokesman Robert Hurst said only one facility — the Formby Unit in Plainview — had a broken heater and that it was quickly repaired.
"All TDCJ units are operating with adequate heating," Hurst said Wednesday.
But inmates' families pushed back against that assessment.
"It may just be a fact of them not turning it on," said Chelsea Collins, whose husband is at the Coffield Unit in Tennessee Colony, where nighttime lows have dipped into at least the 20s in recent weeks.
Not long after receiving a tip from the family of an inmate at the Allred Unit — a North Texas unit where a 10-day hunger strike just ended — Jennifer Erschabek of Texas Inmate Families Association put out a call on Facebook for reports of unheated and under-heated units to make a list to pass along to state political leaders.
The responses came flooding in, from Luther, Allred, Robertson, Eastham, Coffield, LeBlanc, Stiles, Pack and more than a dozen other units.
"I've never seen an issue about cold like this in the past," Erschabek said. "I don't know if it's just because it's such a frigid outbreak of weather or because people are starting to find their voice when it comes to complaining and getting things fixed."
Complaints About Temperatures
By Wednesday evening, Erschabek said, a few inmates' families said the heat seemed to have been turned on or fixed at some units.
Men who've done time said that chilly indoor temperatures aren't anything new, though the differences in the way heating and cooling systems are set-up from unit to unit creates some variation systemwide.
David Kreger lived on the Wynne Unit in Huntsville during the roughly two decades he spent behind bars.
"There was times in the winter months on the cell blocks that the water would freeze in the toilets overnight," he said.
Lewis Conway Jr., who served time in a slew of different prisons across the state, said officers sometimes wielded control of the heater to make a point.
"If you weren't being compliant or obedient, that thing stayed off," said the Austin man who now works with Grassroots Leadership. "Every winter the only choice you have is a heater that blows on high regardless of the temperature so you're in a sweltering hell or if you're in a dorm where there's no central air or heating and it's just concrete and steel."
TDCJ officials said all units are heated, according to Whitmire, though some rely on older systems.
"When you have that many prisons and a lot of these older structures you're going to have a lot of maintenance issues," said former union chief Lance Lowry. "It's older buildings, a lot of them aren't insulated. There's a lot of drafts."
But however old the building is and whatever heating is available, TDCJ "strives to keep the temperature around 70 degrees or higher," Hurst said.
Yet former death row inmate Anthony Graves scoffed at the idea.
"Seventy degrees below zero, maybe," he said. He acknowledged that it wasn't the case at every facility.
Right to Safe Conditions
The recent online outcry about cold prisons comes on the heels of a class-action lawsuit over sweltering summertime temperatures inside the Pack Unit in Navasota. To comply with a federal judge's ruling, TDCJ was forced to move more than 1,000 heat-sensitive inmates to air-conditioned prisons.
Attorney Jeff Edwards, whose Austin law firm represents the inmates in the Pack Unit lawsuit, said that if inmates have been exposed to cold indoor conditions, the prisons should address it urgently and immediately.
"Just as it is well established that prisoners have a right to be safe from high temperatures it is equally well established that they have a right to safe living conditions in freezing temperatures," he said. "TDCJ has heat. If it is choosing not to use it, that is unconscionable. If mechanical equipment has broken down, it should be fixed immediately."
Edwards noted that U.S. District Judge Keith P. Ellison made it clear that when prisons deprive people of certain liberties, they shoulder certain responsibilities, chief among them is to provide safe and humane living conditions.
"TDCJ acknowledged that access to the heat in cold conditions is a right that all inmates have," Edwards said. "If that right is being violated there are only two possibilities — incompetence and indifference."
Gabrielle Banks contributed to this report.
Imagine living in a small concrete and steel cell without any central heat, cross ventilation or even a small heater to relieve the bitter cold.
This is how the TX Indigent Prisoners in TDCJ live.
Every year, we get reports of TX Prisoners who become very ill or even die from the extreme cold damp weather.
Those with asthma, bronchitis, heart disease, HIV, diabetes, emphysema and other chronic illnesses are at the highest risk.
In addition, one-third of the Texas prison population is classified at varying levels of mental illness/retardation and taking psychotropic medications (these drugs impair the body's ability to regulate it's temperature).
Where the winter temperatures range below 20 degrees in some areas of Texas.
TDCJ only provides central heat in staff areas, some psychiatric units and hospitals.
Winter Season Preparations:
Since TDCJ Prison Units does not provide good quality heating systems for the prisoners during the winter season it can make life miserable inside those cold cells.
Please make sure your loved-ones has the following items to prepare themselves for the winter season.
1. A Coat
2. Thermal Under-Shirts and Thermal Pants.
3. Vitamins and Cold Medicine.
4. A Wool Blanket
5. Thick Cotton Socks
6. Boots and Snickers
7. A Hot Pot
8. Gloves only provided for prisoners who work outside.
To prevent exposure to colds, flu and other sicknesses, please advise your loved-ones the following:
A. Wash their hands often with soap and water.
B. Cover their mouths when coughing or sneezing.
C. Avoid being around others who are sick [if possible].
D. After showering make sure to dry off completely.
E. When running a fever, stay in bed and away from others as much as possible so the virus will not spread.
F. If sickness continues more than a few days, request a lay-in go to the infirmary [an institution for the care of the sick or disabled]
G If your loved-ones run into any problems of not getting the proper treatment for their sickness than contact the unit's doctor first, if that still does not resolved the problem than report it to the Medical Liaison in Huntsville.
The Patient Liaison Family
Please Note: I called the Ombudsman Office to find out more information about the heating system in the units.
From what I was told is that all units should have a heating system but when I asked about the older units she was not sure.
The official asked me to mail her the specific units that there is a question about concerning the heating system and she will check with the contractor that is in charge of the construction lay-out of each unit. The whole problem with this is that I know that during the night they turn down the heat and either the cells are too hot or too cold in there.
Also, TDCJ does supply thermal shirts and underwears for the inmates but only to those in areas that it gets real cold.
Again, it's up to the units who gets what.
Inmates that are indigents are suppose to get the necessary items needed. If they work outside in the cold than gloves are provided.
All inmates should get coats as well.
If any of your loved-ones starts having problems concerning with these matters, please let us know so something may be done about it. Better safe than sorry...