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TDCJ Pork Story Undercooked

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On Thursday, the blog Grits for Breakfast reported the Texas Department of Criminal Justice is paying about $750,000 to build six new climate-controlled swine barns. That doesn’t look great, since only about a dozen of Texas’s 111 lockups are air-conditioned, and extreme heat has been blamed for 14 inmate deaths in the last six years.

Several media outlets including the Associated Press picked up the story for obvious reasons: It suggests that Texas cares more about animals than people. A deputy director for TDCJ called that comparison “outrageous.” A civil rights lawyer suing TDCJ over heat-related inmate deaths called the project “outrageous.” There’s enough outrage to go around.

The odd thing about this pig pother is that none of it is new. TDCJ has long used convict labor to breed swine for sale and prisoner consumption. It already keeps its swine in climate-controlled barns—it has to, because pigs have few sweat glands and would quickly die otherwise.

Whether TDCJ really needs new pig digs is a different question, as is whether the project is a good use of taxpayer money or just someone’s (forgive me) pork project. But state indifference to the suffering of prisoners and guards is de rigueur.

For example, in late July, the Connally Unit southeast of San Antonio lost running water for almost a week. First, both the prison’s wells broke. Then, as the Austin American-Statesman reported, the prison’s water towers ran dry, shutting down laundry facilities, showers, and kitchens. After TDCJ brought in portable toilets, writes Mike Ward, “Complaints about dysentery and illness quickly spread, though prison officials denied they were true.”

Those denials are less convincing next to the fact that the Texas Department of State Health Services had the Connally Unit boil its water for an additional five days.

The prison also lost water intermittently last year, but it doesn’t take a special event to make the facility unbearable. Even now, it has regular power outages as guards overload the circuits bringing fans from home. “My thermometer says it’s over 100 in my pocket,” said an officer from Connally to Ward. “There ain’t no damn breeze inside the unit. Just people sweating as the fans blow hot air ‘round and ‘round.”

That story, dealing as it does with simple, crude human misery, was not picked up by the Associated Press.

Last year, the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of a 64-year-old minimum-security inmate who was exposed to weeks of heat indices up to 130 degrees, saying extreme heat can violate a prisoner’s rights. As Judge Carolyn Dineen King put it, “These guys are sitting in an oven . . . and no one gives a damn!” She said the health risks were “obvious” and prison staff “deliberately indifferent.”

That—the deliberateness King names—is what makes the pig barn story, unfortunately, not quite news.

Emily DePrang joined The Texas Observer in 2011 as a staff writer covering criminal justice and public health. Before that, she was nonfiction editor of the Sonora Review. Before that, she was a waitress. She's also appeared in The Atlantic,, and VICE. She holds an MFA in Nonfiction from the University of Arizona and has won some things, including the Public Service Award from the Society of Professional Journalists (2012), the National Health Journalism Fellowship from USC Annenberg (2013), and a nomination for a National Magazine Award in Reporting (2014). She still sometimes thinks about waitressing.

  • SoberMoney

    The prisoner deaths due to TDCJ incompetence and apathy are an harbinger of things to come in Texas as a whole.

    The heating up of Texas from climate change, pandering to the State’s dirty energy plutocracy, and just plain complacency on the part of Texas voters is going to affect everyone similarly.

    Add in the increasing shortages of water and the insane continuation of mindless sub-division development, Texas is in store for a world of hurt (or should I say “heat”).

    All that talk about how strong the Texas economy is will be sardonically laughed at in a few years.

  • Keith Wm DeBlasio

    Can the cost of A/C really be more than the cost of treating all the prisoners (and guards) who suffer with medical problems due to the extreme heat???
    I bet it is cheaper to provide A/C and proper ventilation!!!!
    Avoiding just ONE ER trip would probably cover the cost of the A/C bill for a year, and I am sure that the costs savings for related medical expenses and staff leave would cover the cot of installing A/C. JUST SAYING!

  • Michael W. Jewell

    A few days ago Charlie Sullivan, president of National CURE, and founder of
    Texas CURE, called me to share some rather distressing news. On August 9, 2013
    Charlie traveled from Washington, DC, to Prince George’s County Maryland to
    attend a Standards Committee meeting of the American Correctional Association.
    His intention was to testify before the Committee in order to recommend the
    creation of a standard that would require prison facilities to be air
    conditioned before they could be accredited by the ACA. These meeting allow for
    testimony by the public. But at the last minute Charlie was confronted by the
    Chairman of the Standards Committee and informed that he would not be allowed to
    testify. Can you guess who the chairman is? Brad Livingston, Executive Director
    of the TDCJ, which currently has four wrongful death lawsuits pending against it
    for heat-related deaths.

    We believe it creates a conflict of interest to allow prison officials to
    chair the ACA Standards Committee. Texas taxpayers have shelled out hundreds of
    thousands, if not millions, of dollars to have TDCJ prison units accredited by
    the ACA. Accreditation is supposed to ensure that prison facilities are in
    compliance with the U.S. Constitution and current case law, but how can we trust
    the ACA to meet that obligation when it allows prison officials to dictate which
    standards they have to meet?

    The following was taken from the ACA website:

    ACA Executive
    Director James A. Gondles welcomed the members of the Committee.
    Mr. Gondles also thanked the departing members for their dedication to the Committee. Mr.
    Gondles introduced Commissioner Epps as the incoming President of ACA and Texas
    Department of Criminal Justice Executive Director Brad Livingston as the new Chair of the Standards

    people think the ACA is a “watchdog” agency that monitors the prisons it accredits, when in fact they’re a bunch of foxes watching the henhouse.

    Michael W. Jewell
    Executive Director
    Texas CURE