Texas Prison Brings In Big Fans to Battle Heat By MICHAEL GRACZYK

Posted: July 2, 2014 in News and politics

HUNTSVILLE | 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.

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