Nearly every morning this summer, Cory Tillotson woke up expecting a day of triple-digit heat and began a daily battle to avoid the kind of severe heat exhaustion that can cause organ damage and even death. Tillotson is serving a sentence for drug trafficking in Bradshaw State Jail, a private prison thirty miles east of Tyler that lacks air-conditioning in the housing units. During one of the hottest summers in Texas history, his typical day would go as follows.
After waking, he would get in line for one of the three cold showers shared by the sixty or so men in his dorm, a wait that could take two to three hours. Once he’d showered, he would skip drying off, opting instead to drape a soaked towel around his neck. Then he would try to get into the only air-conditioned room accessible to the seven hundred prisoners—a small respite area with a forty-inmate capacity that was regularly filled. If he couldn’t get in, he would rely on a shared water source to cool down—an oft-depleted ten-gallon cooler replenished with water at room temperature, and infrequently with ice. At night, he’d stay up as late as he could, waiting to sleep until the building temperature dropped to the mid- to low 90s. “It never does cool off,” said Tillotson, who had begun selling drugs after losing his job as a welder. “It takes your heart and soul.”
Tillotson and the others in Bradshaw are far from alone. Texas is one of at least thirteen states without universal air-conditioning in state prisons. While 87 percent of U.S. households have air-conditioning, of Texas’s one hundred state prisons, seventy—with capacity to hold more than 75,000 Texans—do not in units where most prisoners are housed. Instead of AC, Tillotson’s four-thousand-square-foot dorm is equipped with two four-by-four-foot intake fans that blow in air heated by the building’s tin roof, two smaller three-foot exhaust fans, and four other 28-inch fans.
In a July 2022 survey of incarcerated Texans conducted by Texas A&M University, 29 percent of participants said they were aware of at least one heat-related death that had occurred either in their prison or another. Tillotson says there have been days when his hands and feet have gone numb, his heartbeat has been abnormal, and he’s gotten shaky. Others report incarcerated Texans forgoing prescribed medications, such as psychiatric medicines, that interfere with the body’s natural ability to regulate temperature.
Texas law does not require prisons to have air-conditioning, though there have been recent attempts to change that. The state agreed to air-condition the Wallace Pack Unit, a prison for elderly inmates and those with chronic medical conditions, after reaching a settlement with the unit’s prisoners, who sued, contending that the conditions in the facility violated the Eighth Amendment, which prohibits “cruel and unusual punishments.” In 2021, a bill to finance the installation of air-conditioning systems in Texas prisons passed the Texas House with broad support, but when it was referred to the Senate Finance Committee, chair Jane Nelson did not give it a hearing.
During a special session last October, called in part to handle the allocation of coronavirus relief funds, talk of the bill briefly resurfaced, on the theory that an air-purification system connected to AC infrastructure would improve public health conditions in prisons. But according to Amite Dominick, president of Texas Prisons Community Advocates and the key activist behind the bill, it was not referred for the session because Speaker of the House Dade Phelan and Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick said it was not subject to the call of the governor. “That bill was not going to go through, and the leadership already decided where that [ARPA] money was going to go,” she said.
In July, the Texas House Appropriations Committee convened to revisit the issue. Representatives of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which represents state corrections officers, testified in favor of AC installation. They argued that the heat conditions may bear some responsibility for Texas Department of Criminal Justice’s staffing shortage and the 40 percent turnover rate for correctional officers in the past year. In a statement to Texas Monthly, AFSCME Texas Corrections executive director Jeff Ormsby wrote, “Our organization advocates for staff. We want to ensure all areas where staff work are climate controlled,” including “pickets, towers, [and] central control areas” in addition to spaces where inmates reside.
Without requirements for AC, the Texas prison system follows a “heat directive,” a set of administrative guidelines to “prevent extreme temperature-related injuries.” These include the prioritization of beds with access to AC for prisoners deemed to be at heightened risk for heat-related illness (due to their age or other health conditions), fans for others, and the provision of more water and ice in prison dorms when the heat and humidity index meets or exceeds 90 degrees. TDCJ spent roughly $80,000 on water coolers in 2019.
“Core to this department’s mission is protecting the public, our employees, and the inmates in our custody,” TDCJ director of communications Amanda Hernandez wrote in a statement to Texas Monthly. “We take numerous precautions to lessen the effects of hot temperatures for those incarcerated within our facilities. These efforts work. In 2022, there have been 12 inmates who required medical care beyond first aid for heat related injuries and none were fatal. For comparison purposes, our current inmate population is approximately 120,000.”
But some prisoners and their families say TDCJ isn’t meeting these regulatory thresholds for temperature control. In many Texas state prison facilities, including Tillotson’s unit, the only beds with access to air-conditioning are those used for solitary confinement. For those in regular units, demand for ice and water often exceeds what’s supplied, according to Tillotson. While his dorm’s ten-gallon cooler is filled to the brim with ice in the morning, it drains shortly after the sixty or so prisoners try to fill their bottles and is replenished by water at room temperature. “They’re supposed to have ice waters. Well, that doesn’t always happen,” Dominick said, adding that coolers may be delivered “into a dorm with eighty men, and they may not see that refilled for another six hours.”
When they believe the prison system’s heat directive is not being followed, prisoners can file grievances with TDCJ. But according to Tillotson’s wife, Michelle, prisoners fear retaliation if they do so. Others connected to the state’s carceral system say the same. “We get a lot of letters that say, ‘The grievances don’t do any good. The officer tore up my grievance; my grievance never got where it was going because it was thrown away,’ ” Dominick said.
Tillotson hopes to make parole before next summer. He dreams of moving to North Dakota with Michelle and his daughter and building a home together, far from the Texas heat. “I’m praying to God every day that I get to go home to my family and not have to do another summer in here,” he said. “Even though we made bad decisions, we’re not all bad people. We’re still human beings. We have a heart. We have a mind. We’re not lost causes.”