Prisoners must be granted basic human rights

Emma Berdanier

Last week, a federal judge ordered state officials to provide air-conditioned facilities for inmates within Texas state prisons, ruling against the Texas Department of Corrections and Justice. The ruling would come as a shock if you weren’t following the case, because in a state where summer temperatures often exceed 100 degrees fahrenheit, the notion of forcing humans to live without air-conditioning is absurd — if not a form of abuse. This ruling only further illustrates the way America’s failing prison system treats prisoners as something less than human.

The ruling, while a humanitarian step in the right direction, doesn’t go far enough. It doesn’t require that the entirety of prison facilities be air-conditioned or even that all sleeping quarters be air-conditioned. All it mandates is that the sleeping quarters of inmates with health problems be air-conditioned to a temperature at or below 88 degrees fahrenheit.

The decision of 88 degrees fahrenheit as the thermometer of a decent maximum temperature for the prison facilities to reach comes not from the judge himself but from the inmates. They aren’t asking for a nice cold place to lay their heads to rest each night or even a comfortable temperature to keep the facilities at — they’re asking for livable conditions.

This ruling follows the deaths of 22 inmates due to heat stroke within Texas state prison facilities since 1998. All of these deaths could have been prevented with proper air-conditioning within the prisons, but instead the greed of state officials overshadowed the value of human lives.

In a state like Texas, where massive heat waves aren’t uncommon and air-conditioning is seen as a necessity in homes and public buildings, it’s appalling that it isn’t a necessity in state prisons. Temperatures over 100 degrees fahrenheit are becoming more and more likely, with Austin experiencing an average of 22 such days per year. These figures make it even more ghastly that our Republican politicians refuse to provide inmates with tolerable living conditions. Even the cells at Guantanamo Bay, where we house terrorism suspects, are fully air-conditioned.

Following Wednesday’s ruling, our politicians have been adamant that they’ll appeal the decision. In a news release, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said, “Texas taxpayers shouldn’t be on the hook for tens of millions of dollars to pay for expensive prison air-conditioning systems, which are unnecessary and not constitutionally mandated.”

But prison air-conditioning systems, no matter how expensive they are, are not unecessary. Not when the lack of them leads to inmate deaths that could have been easily prevented. In his ruling, the judge cited Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s writings on Siberian prisons, and he was right to do so. Prisons in Texas need to update to incorporate modern technology, if only to keep their inmates alive. Whether we’re behind bars or not, we all deserve basic human rights.

Berdanier is a philosophy senior from Boulder, Colorado. She is a senior columnist. Follow her on Twitter @eberdanier.