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People in Texas prisons claim heat-related health effects, demand air conditioning

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Freda Ross

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(Texas News Service) The Texas Department of Criminal Justice is facing a class action lawsuit calling for the agency to add central air conditioning to all its prisons.

Only 30 percent of the prisons in Texas have central air, and advocates say the sweltering summer heat is inhumane and impacts the physical and emotional health of people who are incarcerated. Four organizations, including the Lioness Justice Impacted Women's Alliance, are plaintiffs in the lawsuit.

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Marci Marie Simmons, community outreach coordinator with the Alliance, said during her 10 years at the Dr. Lane Murray Unitin Gatesville, she was concerned about her health and the health of other women.

"I remember worrying about the insides of my body, like, 'What is this heat doing to my organs?' I watched older women have a really hard time in the summer. I watched women fall out with heat-induced seizures, " she explained.

The Texas House of Representatives has passed a bill that would require all Texas prisons have air conditioning by 2029, but the prison system only has to comply if the state provides the funding.

Over the last 10 years, 13 heat-related deaths have been documented in men's prisons in Texas. According to TDCJ policy, when the heat index is above 90 degrees, additional water, ice and cups are provided to people in prison, who also can wear shorts and t-shirts. In certain cases, they can receive permission to go into one of the designated air-conditioned spaces.

Simmons said about 90,000 people behind bars across the state don't have access to cool air.

"The lawsuit is asking for the same regulations that are on jails, which is to keep the temperatures between 65 degrees and 85 degrees. Currently about 30 percent of beds have climate control," she continued.

The Lone Star State is one of at least 13 in the country where all facilities are not air conditioned. Texas experienced the 2nd hottest summer on record last year and climate experts predict this year will be just as bad or worse.