Saying he weighs “a trim 250 pounds,” the guy in the gray uniform is red-faced and sweating profusely. He has just come from work at the Connally state prison, which made headlines a few weeks ago after two wells went out of service and left the prison without running water for several days.
The prison about 110 miles south of Austin was without water for a time last summer, too, after a truck hit a power pole supplying electricity to a key pump. Service was off and on for several weeks.
“For big boys like me, this job in the summer is a killer,” the veteran officer said, explaining that he took it because it was the only local job he found in this rural South Texas community. “I ask myself every day why I’m working there.”
He and two other officers, fearing job reprisals, agreed to speak with a reporter at a burger joint outside of town only if their names were not used.
“My thermometer says it’s over 100 in my picket,” another officer said of his post inside the prison. “I can stand outside in the sun right here, and it’ll be cooler because there’s a breeze. There ain’t no damn breeze inside the unit. Just people sweating as the fans blow hot air ‘round and ‘round.”
The first officer chimed in: “A prison without water. Why does that make any sense?”
Advocacy groups and some state officials are asking the same question, criticizing prison officials for continuing infrastructure problems at the maximum-security prison built in 1995.
While summertime water issues are not new — complaints have rolled in for years about the sulfur smell in water at state prison facility near Marlin — this summer’s heat and water outages at Connally highlight unrest over working and living conditions inside many of Texas’ 111 state prisons.
All but a few aren’t air conditioned. And most of them, built two decades ago when Texas tripled the size of its corrections system in just five years, face increasing maintenance costs as the infrastructure ages along with the average age of the prisoners.
The convict population has declined in recent years, and Texas is in the process of closing two additional prisons. Some officials are wondering whether one of them should have been Connally.
“If the water problems continue there in any way, the (prisons) agency needs to think about getting out of that location,” said Senate Criminal Justice Committee Chairman John Whitmire, D-Houston. “You shouldn’t have 2,100 inmates and several hundred employees in that kind of summer heat, with no water.”
According to prison officials, two city water wells supplying the prison broke on July 22. Three days later, the prison’s water tower went dry, and tankers of water and trailers of ice were brought in to keep the lockup operating, said Jeff Baldwin, a Texas Department of Criminal Justice spokesman.
With no water, the laundry, showers and kitchens could not operate as usual. Sack meals were served to convicts. Portable toilets were brought in. Complaints about dysentery and illnesses quickly spread, though prison officials denied they were true.
Although water service was restored July 28, boil-water notices issued by the State Department of Health Services remained in effect, and the water supply was not approved for drinking until Aug. 2, officials said.
Baldwin said prison operations have returned to normal. But other officials confirmed that there have been new complaints about electrical outages in some areas. Workers bringing in fans and portable air conditioners are regularly tripping circuit breakers.
“The inmates are totally dependent on officers to bring them water,” said Michelle Smith, an attorney with the Texas Civil Rights Project in Austin that is suing the state over the heat-related death of a convict at the prison in 2011. “ A lack of water and toilets in a facility that size is a problem, even for a day.”
Even though the Connally employees said they had been told not to publicly discuss the problems, Brian Olsen, a prison workers union official in Huntsville, confirmed their stories about the oppressive heat.
“It’s dangerous for the officers and for the inmates,” he said. “The (concrete) walls heat up during the afternoon and stay hot. Even after the sun goes down, it can be over 100 degrees inside some of the units, in some places.”
Prison officials said earlier this year they were examining the possibility of installing air systems at some prisons — not air conditioning, but what essentially amounts to water coolers. But no such plans have yet been rolled out.
For veteran lawmaker Whitmire, whose committee is one of two legislative panels that oversee prison operations, a lack of water “for any extended period” should have been reason to relocate the Connally convicts to other prisons. “We have enough empty beds in the system to take them, even with the two prisons we’re closing,” he said.
Two privately run lockups are closing this month under orders from the Legislature, owing to dropping prisoner counts thanks to a declining crime rate and successful treatment and rehabilitation programs that are reducing recidivism. Baldwin said the last convicts have departed the Mineral Wells Pre-Parole Transfer Facility in Mineral Wells, and only a few remain at the Dawson State Jail in Dallas.
House Corrections Committee Chairman Tan Parker, R-Flower Mound, could not be reached for comment Tuesday. But he earlier suggested that Connally might be a candidate to be closed or mothballed because of its chronic shortage of staff. The prison is in the heart of oil and gas country, where a shale oil drilling boom continues to siphon off prison workers with higher pay and better working conditions.
“The problem is that Texas built prisons all over the place, in remote areas, where water problems and hiring are an issue,” Whitmire said. “We’re paying the price for bad decisions, … and the officers and the inmates are the ones suffering.”