By Jason Renard Walker
Originaly published on Incarcerated Worker Organizing Committee (IWOC)’s site, July 18, 2018
Since 2011, at least twelve Texas prisoners have died from heat stroke, which was a result of the sweltering temperatures inside buildings, dorms, day rooms and the cells where prisoners live.
Hundreds more have suffered heat-related illnesses, many of whom were among the elderly and disabled inmates housed at the Wallace Pack Unit. This does not include prisoners who didn’t report their injuries or those who attempted to treat themselves.
The Pack Unit is a medical and geriatric prison where the indoor prisoner housing areas are not climate-controlled with air conditioning. Prisons like this cause a spike in heat-related injuries because the apparent temperature routinely exceeds 100 degrees Fahrenheit inside the housing areas. This is a state-wide problem, not just a Pack Unit one.
In 2011, Prisoner Keith Cole and others filed a 1983 Class Action under the 8th Amendment for cruel and unusual punishment and other heat-related violations. In 2017, Judge Keith Ellison granted Cole a preliminary injunction that ordered TDCJ to move all heat-sensitive prisoners from the Pack Unit to one of the few units that had adequate air conditioning to accommodate them. When the heat cooled, they would be moved back – over and over, until the problem is resolved.
But, like the lawsuit explained, all prisoners are likely to suffer heat-related injuries and deaths from these particular conditions, which opens up a Pandora’s Box for subsequent lawsuits.
Now TDCJ has a state-wide policy called Respite Training and Education. It is supposed to alert staff to how prisoners can access respite areas. In part, it says:
* inmates are allowed to access respite 24/7;
* inmates DO NOT need to be sick, injured or feeling bad to access respite, rather they may do so to cool down whenever they wish;
* to access respite, inmates can make the request to any correctional officer;
* if there are problems, ask to talk to a ranking correctional officer.
In fact, officials aren’t complying with this order, and have implemented a very crafty punishment program for prisoners who insist on protesting about being denied access to respite.
Most notably, on May 27th 2018, Officer Phillips, a black female who often brags about being the administration’s lapdog, made several prisoners strip out of their clothing and stand in the 3 Building’s hallway. She was the desk officer for that day. The reason was that these prisoners had complained of being hot, and others didn’t have their shirts tucked in. This was being done while prisoners were passing by going to dinner, and as another officer watched with a smile. I was a victim of this at one point myself.
A so-called legal eagle prisoner pretended to help the victims of this, but he turned out to be a servant of Phillips. I heard him tell Phillips to watch out, that plans be were being made to get her disciplined. She admitted to the lackey that her actions were retaliatory, and because “they wouldn’t shut the hell up.”
Such efforts to coerce prisoners who request respite are widespread, and prisoners are often prevented from actually getting access to respite areas. Denied commissary purchases, threats of cell shakedowns, and disciplinary cases are the usual scare tactics. These methods have been very effective: prisoners are willing to sweat in the day room and suffer heat exhaustion rather than face cruel and unusual punishment. Indeed, this situation alone is cruel and unusual punishment.
On July 24th, 2015, Deputy Director Robert Erison authorized a TDCJ state-wide memo to all TDCJ wardens and regional directors, ordering all wardens to make air-conditioned respite areas available. This included posting notices saying where these areas are located, and allowing staff and prisoners to use them as needed.
But, like at the Telford Unit, Pack Unit prisoners feel threatened just asking for a place to cool down. “I’ve only ever tried to use an area listed on TDCJ’s ‘notice to offenders’ once, and that was a bad experience”, said plaintiff Fred Wallace, in a declaration he wrote to the courts.
The Pack Unit’s warden, Roberto Herrera, investigated prisoners’ claims of being denied access to respite areas, and learned that many were denied for no reason at all, and others were handled unprofessionally.
These acts towards heat-exhausted prisoners in search of respite are devoid of logic or reason. No legitimate penological or institutional objective is furthered by this deliberate indifference. Since most prisoners don’t grieve this, these acts are seen as normal by staff and other prisoners, and so these practices remain ongoing.
On July 2nd 2018, during one of the hottest days thus far, Officer Jessica N. Castro not only denied prisoners who asked for respite; she doubled back and wrote disciplinary cases on prisoners for taking their sweat-saturated shirts off, and standing by the open window on the dayroom stairwell. The rule book says we can’t take our shirts off in the dayroom or stand on the stairwell; it also says we can access respite 24/7. Who was wrong in this instance?
Castro spent her entire shift going from one pod section to the next, writing prisoners up for the exact same thing. She showed little regard for her own health and safety, constantly entering the cellblocks, which caused her entire uniform and face to be drenched in sweat after just a few minutes.
Most officers minimize the frequency and length of their visits to the cellblocks due to the humidity. They are most often seen when they come to retrieve a sweaty shirtless prisoner’s ID card to write them a case. They enter the cellblock dry and leave looking like they’ve had water thrown on them. The smarter guards won’t enter the cellblock, but have the prisoners slide their ID under the door.
Since it’s summer vacation, and the warden closed down the craft shop for political reasons, prisoners aren’t in school where there’s air conditioning, and the craft shop can’t be used as a respite area.
Inside the dayrooms, heat pours in from the open windows, while the exhaust vent pumps out the stale heat, so hot air is perpetually circulating. The dayroom water fountain doesn’t work, the bathroom sink’s cold water is broken, only giving us access to lukewarm water. The water cooler, which is supposed to have ice water in it 24/7, is normally empty, and only gets refilled two or three times a day. This is to support forty-eight prisoners. Debris is frequently found in it.
TDCJ standards require that each prisoner drink at least two gallons of water per day, but the water cooler couldn’t possibly be filled up enough to meet this standard. To top this off, we are only allowed to purchase twelve 16.9 ounce bottles of water from commissary every two weeks. These bottles only hold enough for two days, three at the most. They are considered emergency items. Readers, please demand that we get multiple special water purchases.
Dropping like flies in the summer heat
To avoid public scrutiny and accountability, officers and medical staff devise ways to misdiagnose heat-related injuries, so that their severity is hidden before they are documented in medical records.
On July 3rd, 2018, two prisoners were hauled to the infirmary for what were called “heat strokes”. At 2:20 PM, a call over the officer radio to all stations stated that a prisoner on 4 Building, F-Pod, had passed out from a “heat stroke”, and was unresponsive. Five minutes later, the same caller stated the the prisoner was responsive with a wet towel on his neck, and that it wasn’t a heat stroke; she didn’t state what the new diagnosis was.
Despite having no competent medical judgement, she or someone else diagnosed the injuries, changed the diagnosis, then had the prisoner walk to the infirmary in the heat, even though medical had said they were en route with a gurney. At 2:31PM, I watched from the law library as an old red-headed female nurse and a heavy-set old male nurse met with the prisoner, who was being escorted by a black female officer named “Garner” or “Garland”. This black prisoner was walked into the infirmary an hour after a white- or hispanic-looking prisoner was sent there on a gurney. Both had sweaty bodies and clothing. Both had the same initial diagnosis.
A prisoner living in 4 Building who wants to remain anonymous stated that “rank said medical can’t put the word ‘heat’ or ‘stroke’ on paper cause they gonna get sued.” This coincides with me hearing the guard on the radio change the diagnosis. And why they had the obviously heat-exhausted prisoner walk to the infirmary. The institution’s Rule #1 is that if it isn’t on paper, it didn’t happen. On July 6th, 2018, another prisoner dropped.
There are other cases of inappropriate denial of medical care and respite. On July 3rd, 2018, I returned from the law library, and was denied the opportunity to go into my cell, even though the pod officer was letting other prisoners do so. The white female guard told me that she wasn’t going to go to the third tier, where I stay, because it makes her “sweaty and dizzy”.
I was forced to sit the in the dayroom for over two hours. During the first thirty minutes, I became heat-exhausted, so I tried to contact the pod officer. I was told to shut up and sit down. I contacted Officer Michelle R. Lafayette, who was working in the guard tower that watched over the three pod section and controlling the doors. I’m in A-Pod, 2 Section.
I asked if I could access a respite area to cool down and get some water, since the water cooler was empty. “A re-what?” she laughed over the intercom. “We don’t do that here”, she said, before cutting off the intercom.
I spent over an hour trying to get her and the other pod guard to notify medical staff or ranking staff, because I began to feel dizzy. Efforts to go in my cell, which has a fan, were maliciously denied. Lafayette told me that she was giving me a direct order to get away from the door and the intercom. If I didn’t, I would receive three cases, she said, for failing to obey a direct order; for being out of place (we can’t loiter by the door or intercom); and the third for asking for water – which she claimed is the same as begging her to bring in drugs. No respite or medical care was provided.
Heaven and hell’s kitchen
During lunch and dinner in the dining rooms is no different than in the living areas. These “chow halls” are twice as small as the day room, but hold a lot more people, often being at full capacity thirty minutes at a time. They contain no air conditioning, and the hot air circulates just like in the dayrooms.
More often than not, the soupy flavorless meals are piping hot, coupled with a complete lack of anything to drink. When drinks are there, they are lukewarm, and rarely contain ice.
After prisoners are done eating, they are forced to wait in a single-file or double-file line, sometimes for twenty minutes, until the exit door is opened by Sgt. Huff. This lifeless control freak closes the exit and entrance doors, so that comers and goers are at his mercy entering and exiting the chow halls. When he’s not around, they remain open or are closed briefly. If any prisoners that dare to beat on the door or beg him to open it, he subjects us to a longer wait. “Keep beating on the door and I won’t open it”, he says. Even officers in the chow hall suffer, and are only bowing down to their supervisor. Sweaty shirts and faces gleam everywhere.
The Officers’ Dining Room (ODR), which is built and looks like the chow halls, is a complete contrast. This ODR has top-of-the line air-conditioning, table cloths, chairs, ice-cold beverages, a wide variety of “solid food” choices, adequate lighting, and is always swept and cleaned by prisoners.
Such conditions in the chow hall don’t exist, and one would be lucky to be assigned to a table that is at least half-wiped. In fact, the ODR is one of the places TDCJ lists as a respite area.
Experts and the courts say this is unconstitutional
Even thought the Cole v. Collier class action suit focuses on the Pack Unit, many of the conditions that create heat stroke-threatening temperatures inside the cell blocks are the same everywhere, if not worse.
Dr McGeehin, a lead scientist for the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), along with other expert witnesses, testifies that the most proven effective method for reducing heat exhaustion is adequate air conditioning.
In fact, ice water, cold showers, breeze fans, and industrial blow fans in the day room, have proven ineffective in temperatures over 95 degrees, and serve as a short term measure only, according to expert witnesses.
Fans are proven to only circulate the heat that’s drawn in from open windows and ventilation, which can increase heat exhaustion by drying out the skin.
TDCJ claims that providing adequate air conditioning to prisoners is costly and would compromise an already decreased budget. But experts calculated that TDCJ can provide enough air conditioning, not only to the Pack Unit, but other units. It is TDCJ who installed air conditioning units in the slaughter hog barns because they wanted the pigs to live comfortably. It had nothing to do with its meat being less nutritious.
TDCJ also tried to claim that the respite areas can offset the need for air conditioning units, but it’s already been proven in the Cole v. Collier suit that respite areas aren’t always accessible; can accommodate all prisoners; and that many times prisoners are denied access.
They even had Dr Means, a defendant in related prisoner wrongful-death cases, get on the stand and try to persuade the judge that air conditioning isn’t effective. She was viewed as incredible by the judge, who commented “on the stand, she was unable to directly answer most of the questions by Plaintiffs’ counsel, and was even nonresponsive to questions posed by this Court.” (See Document 473, Memorandum Order).
It was exposed by the courts that TDCJ failed to provide each unit living area with air conditioning, and that this was done for “political and financial reasons”. And that by doing this, they were deliberately indifferent, and subjecting prisoners to unnecessary “cruel and unusual punishment”. The State of Texas requires county jails to keep indoor temperatures between 65 and 85 degrees (see Title 37 Texas Administrative Code, 259.160). This is because, when it’s 98 degrees outside, it can easily get up to 110 degrees inside places that lack adequate air conditioning.
The Telford Unit is one of those places. Unit Warden Garth Parker is responsible for ensuring that constitutional conditions of confinement exist at the Telford Unit. He won’t move to change these conditions until he’s faced with public scrutiny, enquiries, and protest. Something that he doesn’t expect to happen, something that needs to happen.
Readers, please call Warden Parker at the Telford Unit (903-628-3171), and demand that he investigate and remedy the situation where prisoners are denied access to respite, medical care, and the lack of oversight that Cpt. Beard, Warden Townsend, Warden Aisebrook, and Medical Supervisor R. Burreson are providing to ensure these needs are met.
Dare to struggle, dare to win, all power to the people!
Jason Renard Walker, #1532092
3899 Hwy 98
New Boston, TX 75570
All references from the Pack Unit, the Cole v. Collier suit, and any mention of expert witnesses are drawn from 14-1698 – Cole et al v. Collier et al, Court Documents #38, #174, #473, #629.
This article was originally censored by the mailroom, on the grounds that the original version of the article mentioned Jason’s affiliation with the New Afrikan Black Panther Party in the byline. Telford mailroom staff claim that any mention of the words “Black Panther” counts as gang activity, and this censorship comes in the context of what seems to be a co-ordinated clampdown on NABPP members across Texas.
Readers are encouraged to contact the TDCJ Ombudsman at email@example.com, as well as the Telford Unit’s management at 903-628-3171 and firstname.lastname@example.org, to request that they cease the campaign of harassment and retaliation against Jason, and provide all inmates with adequate relief from the extreme heat. Let them know that we’re looking out for Jason and will hold the prison accountable if anything happens to him!
Letters to Jason at Jason Renard Walker, #1532092, Telford Unit, 3899 Hwy 98, New Boston, TX 75570, will also help to break down his sense of isolation and show the administration that there are people watching out for him, but as mentioned above, be aware that his mail is undergoing heavy censorship.