Lobbying to Save Lives in Texas Prisons

It’ll cost $500 million to get A/C in prisons

Art by Zeke Barbaro / Getty Images

Elizabeth Haggerty would have been out of prison by now and back with Hannah, her wife. Haggerty, known as Liz to her loved ones, made parole in February of 2022. She was transferred to the Dr. Lane Murray Unit this June in preparation for her release. It was supposed to happen on Aug. 2 – one day before Hannah's 31st birthday.

Haggerty had diabetes, high blood pressure, and asthma – conditions that can be worsened by heat. She had been moved from an air-conditioned prison to Lane Murray, one of many Texas prisons with no A/C, where temperatures this summer have risen to 120 degrees and higher. Hannah's mother, Martha Romero, told us that Liz began having trouble immediately after the move in June. To make matters worse, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice hadn't sent her medicines with her.

"Liz was messaging me and saying that it was hot, that she felt sick," Romero said. "She was like, 'It's only one month, I think I can make it, but I feel so sick. I can't eat nothing, I need Gatorade and chips, that's all I can hold down.' That was the last email I got from her."

According to TDCJ, Haggerty died around midnight on June 28. She was 37 years old. After her death, Romero spoke with a prisoner who said that Haggerty was very ill for three days before she passed. "She said that Liz was dehydrated, that she was having trouble breathing, and she was covered with a really bad heat rash from the top of her head to her feet, just all over," Romero said. "And she had no water. In the dorm, you have to get your own water, and Liz couldn't do it for herself."

Romero blames the heat, and TDCJ's inability to mitigate it, for Haggerty's death. It's a conviction shared by the family members of other Texans who have died in prisons this summer. These include Debra Schlegel, age 64, who died on June 22; Tommy McCullough, age 35, who died on June 23; and Jon Anthony Southards, age 36, who died on June 28. Each of them reported feeling overwhelmed by the heat, their loved ones have said.

As we wrote earlier in this series, TDCJ does not admit that these deaths – or those of any inmate since 2011 – were heat-related, despite research showing that the heat is responsible for 12% of inmate deaths each summer. (Agency spokesperson Amanda Hernandez told us Schlegel's death is thought to be the result of heart disease. No cause has yet been determined for the deaths of McCullough and Southards.) Prison advocates say that TDCJ officials know how dangerous the heat is – for example, the agency requires wardens to offer ice water and fans to prisoners. But its leaders have never lobbied the state to install A/C in the prisons, even though 20,000 of its guards suffer in the same stifling conditions as the prisoners.

Instead, TDCJ has provided cover for tough-on-crime politicians by exaggerating how much A/C would cost. In 2017, the agency estimated that air-conditioning the Wallace Pack Unit in Navasota would cost $20 million. A/C was installed two years later for $4 million. In 2021, it estimated that simply running A/C systems, were they to be installed, would cost $140 million a year. The same year, TDCJ Executive Director Bryan Collier testified that the agency would need over $1 billion to install A/C in only half of its facilities.

“Sometimes they have heat strokes and ambulances and paramedics have to be called out to these facilities – for the workers, not just the inmates.”   – State Rep. Carl Sherman

Advocates say these numbers are so exaggerated that they amount to lies. "Collier answered questions in one of these hearings and it was excuse after excuse," said Charlie Malouff, vice president of TX C.U.R.E. Inc., a criminal justice advocacy group. "It was, 'Oh, we project $1.2 billion for this and $1.2 billion for that.' But when the hard numbers came in from the Pack Unit and [Rep. Terry] Canales' open records requests, no – we're talking about less than $500 million."

That number – $500 million – was approved overwhelmingly by the House of Representatives this legislative session in Canales' House Bill 1708, which would have brought A/C to the state's prisons by 2025. The proposal died in the Senate Finance Committee when the committee chair, Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, refused to hear it.

It was the second session in a row that the Senate had rejected a House plan to air-condition the prisons. Advocates believe that the upper body has blood on its hands, particularly Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, the chair of the Criminal Justice Committee, who has said, "We're not gonna air-condition the prisons." On another occasion, he said, "We need to have a grownup discussion of what's practicable and reasonable and what's politically acceptable. But I can tell you, the people of Texas don't want air-conditioned prisons." Whitmire and Huffman did not return requests for comment.

Malouff is one of those who emphasize that TDCJ's guards are suffering along with the prisoners. He can't understand why Collier wouldn't ask the Senate to approve A/C for his own employees' sake. Democratic Rep. Carl Sherman, a strong supporter of modernizing the prisons, has visited a half-dozen units this summer and spoken to many guards. "They wonder, 'Does anyone in the public really care about us?'" Sherman said. "'You know, that we're working in these environments, that every 30 minutes we're having to go up these stairs on each floor and there's no A/C?' And sometimes they have heat strokes and ambulances and paramedics have to be called out to these facilities – for the workers, not just the inmates."

The heat is considered a major cause of TDCJ's ongoing staffing crisis. In researching this story, the Chronicle heard repeatedly of prisoners who weren't getting ice water or respite because there were no guards to provide it. It's an element of Liz Haggerty's story, too – an inmate told Martha Romero that she tried to find a guard to help Haggerty in the hours before her death but there were none on duty.

Romero said that when she heard Liz had died it felt as though the floor had dropped out from under her. Now she feels numb. Hannah, she said, is dealing with Liz's death in her own way, privately.

"I try not to bring it up," Romero said. "She'll bring it up when she wants to say something. And it will turn into a long conversation. Tears and laughter."

Hannah is not ready to speak publicly about her loss. Romero wasn't ready to do so either, at first. Now, she's adding her voice to those of other families and friends whose loved ones have suffered. "I don't want it to just be the end of Liz's story," Romero said. "I want the world to know that this was a person who lived and was loved. And what happened was not okay."

This is Part 3 of a three-part series on the dangerous heat in the two-thirds of state prisons that lack air conditioning. Read Part 1 here and Part 2 here.

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