Too hot to handle

Too hot to handle

By Glynis Christine

Texas group provides indigent prisoners relief from the heat

Although air is circulating through his prison cell, it's hot. Without a fan, the air can feel suffocating. "There are dozens in here who have vacated their bunks, vying instead to get below some of the heat, and feel something cool against their skin, even if it is hard concrete (floor)," writes a Texas inmate in a letter to TxCURE, a prison reform group.

This year, Texans have already endured several days of unseasonably hot weather, including a record high temperature of 104 degrees on May 31. While many people avoid sweating by hopping from an air-conditioned building to an air-conditioned automobile, Texas prison inmates and employees spend most of their time in stifling heat and humidity. Prison infirmaries, psychiatric facilities, geriatric units, and the warden's office are air-conditioned.

For the 150,000 men and women imprisoned in the state's concrete and cinderblock penitentiaries, a simple item like a $20 fan can make the difference between life and death. Most at risk for heat-related emergencies are inmates with asthma, diabetes, and heart disease, as well as those with mental illnesses, who take medications that can dehydrate them or raise their body temperature.

"To install air conditioning we need money in the budget," said Michelle Lyons, spokesperson for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. "Taxpayers aren't going to support that."

Enter Citizens United for Rehabilitation of Errants, a 30-year old non-profit, national prison reform organization that has its roots in San Antonio. The group has chapters in 40 states and is now headquartered in Washington, D.C. In 2002, members of the Texas chapter convinced state officials to allow them to donate funds to purchase the $20 commissary-issued fans for those offenders who could prove their indigent status. An offender is deemed "indigent" if he or she has gone at least six months without any money being deposited in their commissary account from an outside source.

In the first year, TxCURE raised enough money to provide almost 650 fans; last year they purchased more than 1,100 fans. This year, the group's goal is to supply fans to an additional 2,004 offenders.

Unless Texas inmates have family or friends to buy fans, there is no way to get them. Inmates are not paid for work performed while incarcerated. Moreover, TDCJ regulations state inmates can donate their fans to another inmate only with the warden's permission.

Inmates aren't allowed to purchase fans for fellow inmates; nor can they send money to TxCURE to support the program.

"To install air conditioning we need money in the budget. Taxpayers aren't going to support that."

— Michelle Lyons, TDCJ spokesperson
TxCURE Vice Chair Lois Robison estimates that among the 105 correctional facilities statewide, 50 fans are left behind every day. Several weeks ago, Robison and other TxCURE members met with prison officials and submitted a proposal requesting that any released inmates be allowed to donate their fans to indigent prisoners.

"I believe that this is a logical extension of the program," said Robison from her home in Burleson, Texas. "I got a letter from 'my little guy' (a pet name for an indigent prisoner who was one of the first to receive a fan and has kept in touch with Robison) in Huntsville and he wanted to know if he could donate his fan to another indigent prisoner."

If a prisoner were to give a fan to another inmate without the warden's permission, it would be confiscated as contraband because it has the original purchaser's name and TDCJ identification number etched on the handle. Because of TDCJ regulations, prisoners may only purchase one fan for personal use and cannot give, trade, sell or loan personal items to another inmate. In her proposal, Robison suggests that instead of destroying those fans left behind, the donor fan program could be run by prison chaplains or the property officers. "We would like to see the fans recycled so they can continue to be used by needy prisoners as long as they are workable," she explained.

The recommendation is feasible since TDCJ regulations permit staff to provide inmates with authorized items. By expanding the program to include donated fans, it will allow more indigent prisoners to get relief from the Texas heat.

According to a TDCJ Risk Management Training Circular, "Prevention (of heat related emergencies) is simple, effective and by far preferable to treatment." While heat exposure is an important issue, the TDCJ Health Services Division Department of Preventive Medicine's goals are aimed at AIDS/HIV, Hepatitis B vaccines, STDs and tuberculosis. Nowhere in the agency's vast literature is there a mention of a goal of medical or institutional personnel to address the heat-related needs of prisoners.

In a letter to Robison, a prisoner writes, "I have found myself wondering this because this fan would certainly be much more useful left behind here. In fact, I know it." •

TxCURE is an all-volunteer organization. To donate to the Indigent Fan Project, contact TxCURE, P.O. Box 1176, Burleson, TX 76097. Donations are tax-deductible.

By Glynis Christine

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