Texas officials say it would cost $1 billion to cool prisons – but they’ve grossly overestimated AC costs before

Texas Tribune News

Telford prison in New Boston, Texas.
Telford prison in New Boston, Texas.
Shelby Knowles for The Texas Tribune

The Texas Department of Criminal Justice has put a hefty $1 billion price tag on the proposed installation of air conditioning in all of its uncooled prisons. But some lawmakers eyed the cost with skepticism Thursday as the department has a history of greatly overestimating cooling costs.

The estimate was provided to state lawmakers ahead of a hearing on a long-shot bill that would require all Texas prisons to be kept at temperatures between 65 and 85 degrees, as is required for local and county jails. Currently, 75 of the state’s 104 prisons and jails do not have air conditioning in most inmate housing areas where temperatures often rise above 100 degrees in the summer.

In the fiscal note tied to the bill, filed by state Rep. Terry Canales, TDCJ estimated it would cost $1 billion to install air conditioning in all of its uncooled prisons, and another $140 million each year for utilities and maintenance. But Canales, D-Edingburg, and at least one lawmaker on the House Corrections Committee doubted those numbers since the agency’s estimated air conditioning cost for one prison was slashed by more than 80 percent during a lengthy lawsuit that was settled last year.

“This is an exorbitant, disingenuous number that is used to scare away people such as yourselves to say this can’t happen,” Canales said to committee members at the hearing Thursday. “Whoever came up with this number is ridiculous.”

In 2017, at a court hearing over stifling temperatures inside the Wallace Pack Unit near College Station, TDCJ brought forth an expert that claimed it would cost more than $20 million to install air conditioning in the prison. That price later dropped to $11 million after the department conducted its own research, and then shrunk again to about $4 million last summer after the state settled the lawsuit and agreed to install air conditioning in the prison. (The lawsuit itself cost the state more than $7 million.)

Last year, TDCJ requested an extra $2 million from the Legislature to install air conditioning in the Hodge Unit, which houses inmates with developmental disabilities. Based on the TDCJ estimate posted Wednesday ahead of the hearing, it would cost on average more than $13.3 million per unit to install air conditioning.

The agency said in the fiscal note that the estimate presumes each facility would require an engineering assessment before installation. Bryan Collier, the department’s executive director, told lawmakers the estimate was used with the methods that determined the lowest number for the Pack Unit, and that it may be lower than actual costs.

“You’ve got facilities with nearly 4,000 beds in some locations that are going to cost significantly more than the Pack Unit,” he said.

Committee member state Rep. Phil Stephenson, R-Wharton, said he had a problem with the accuracy of the department’s cost estimate, also calling it “ridiculous” and saying an independent entity should come up with a cost. State Rep. James White, a Tyler Republican who chairs the committee, said in a recent op-ed that the state should cool its prisons, though he repeatedly stated at the hearing that cooling doesn’t necessarily mean installing air conditioning. Collier said to comply with temperatures below 85 degrees, air conditioning was the mechanism they used in their estimate.

The lack of cooling in most Texas prisons has brought renewed criticism in the last decade after 10 inmates died in a 2011 heat wave. Since 1998, at least two dozen inmates have reportedly died from the heat, including one during last year’s heat wave (though TDCJ has contested that inmate’s reported cause of death and said the final autopsy is still pending).

The 2011 deaths prompted several wrongful death lawsuits and, in 2014, several inmates at the Pack Unit sued the state over stifling temperatures inside prison dorms and cells. The department fought the lawsuit for years, saying the cost was too burdensome and their mitigation efforts against heat, like providing ice water and allowing personal fans, sufficiently countered the heat.

In 2017, a federal judge ruled the conditions at the Pack unit constituted cruel and unusual punishment, and slammed Texas for being “deliberately indifferent” to the substantial risk sweltering temperatures posed to medically-vulnerable inmates, like the elderly and those with heart disease. The ruling required the department to temporarily house those inmates in air conditioned beds.

The state initially vowed to appeal the ruling, with Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton citing the more than $20 million cost estimate and arguing “taxpayers shouldn’t be on the hook for tens of millions of dollars to pay for expensive prison air conditioning systems.”

But in February, the department and the inmates announced a settlement, with the prison department agreeing to permanently install air conditioning at the Pack Unit and move vulnerable inmates throughout the state into prisons that already have air conditioning. Before the settlement, TDCJ had recalculated the estimate to cool the prison and came up with an $11 million figure. In August, Collier told lawmakers at a legislative hearing that that estimate had dropped again to $4 million after the state comptroller’s office said some construction upgrades weren’t necessary.

Despite the lawmaker’s concerns, HB 936 and a matching Senate bill filed by state Sen. José Menéndez, D-San Antonio, face an uphill battle moving through a Legislature that has not budgeted for a large air conditioning bill from the prison system. A related proposal currently included in the House budget would require the department to report temperatures inside inmate housing areas on hot days to the Legislature.