No AC, extreme heat create 'volatile' situation at Texas federal prison
Union president for COs jokes that "everything runs off duct tape and band-aids” in the understaffed prison with failing infrastructure
By Kaley Johnson
Fort Worth Star-Telegram
FORT WORTH, Texas — During a summer of record-breaking heat, a federal prison near Dallas continues to struggle with a lack of air conditioning, power outages and chronic understaffing.
Temperatures inside FCI Seagoville reached at least 100 degrees, according to people incarcerated at the facility, and threatened the health of incarcerated people and staff members alike. Rented generators tripped breakers and caused power outages. Faulty electrical equipment almost burned down a building. An officer was sent to the hospital, and men incarcerated at the prison said people passed out and had seizures due to the heat.
And while staff and administrators at the facility struggle to hold the facility together, the Bureau of Prisons continues to neglect infrastructure issues, according to Robert Freeman, president of the officers’ union at the prison.
“No one should have to go through the conditions the officers and inmates are going through,” Freeman said.
The federal Bureau of Prisons declined the Star-Telegram’s interview request Wednesday and had not responded to a list of questions by the time of publication. In response to the Star-Telegram’s questions about FCI Seagoville in August, the Bureau of Prisons sent a blanket statement over email.
“The well-being of our employees and the incarcerated individuals in our custody is a priority for FCI Seagoville,” Emery Nelson with the bureau’s Office of Congressional and Public Affairs said in the email. “We remain committed and vigilant to ensure safe conditions are maintained.”
There is no law requiring the Bureau of Prisons to keep federal prisons at a certain temperature. According to BOP guidelines, temperatures should be about 76 degrees in hot seasons and 68 degrees in cold seasons. But the guidelines note that “due to issues such as the age of the cooling and heating systems,” those temperatures may vary.
People incarcerated across the country, especially in the South, face life-threatening conditions inside prisons due to extreme temperatures. Democrats demanded an investigation into heat-related conditions in prisons and jails in a letter sent to the House Committee on Oversight and Accountability on Aug. 21. The letter hones in on Texas conditions, noting that parts of the state measured among the hottest temperatures on Earth in August.
Dangerous heat conditions
FCI Seagoville houses about 1,800 incarcerated people, some of whom are considered medically vulnerable, in seven buildings. Four of the buildings, constructed in the 1940s, do not have air conditioning. The three other housing units have air conditioning but have frequent power outages.
In August, temperatures reached at least 110 degrees inside FCI Seagoville’s four un-air-conditioned units, said Jacob Kolonis, who is housed in one of those units. Thermometers on the first and second floors regularly read at least 90 and 100 degrees, respectively, he said.
He said he has seen people have seizures because of the heat, and it is so hot inside the building that the men cooled off when they went outside.
“When you’re sleeping in these conditions, you wake up covered in sweat and you wake up nauseated and you are dehydrated,” he said. “Especially when there’s rarely any ice to get and you’re drinking hot water.”
The Bureau of Prisons maintained in a statement in July that there had been “no inmate health concerns, including fainting or injuries, attributed to heat conditions,” at FCI Seagoville.
But research shows a link between a lack of air conditioning and mortality rates in prison, according to a 2023 study published in the academic journal PLOS ONE. In state-run prisons, at least 41 people died this summer from heart-related or unknown causes, according to a Texas Tribune analysis. The Texas Department of Criminal Justice contends no one has died from heat in its facilities since 2012.
Those numbers do not include federal prisons, which are not required to publicly report deaths.
Even the units with air conditioning became dangerously hot this summer due to power failures.
Four of the seven housing units relied on generator power from mid-December to the end of July, according to Anthony Accurso, who is incarcerated at Seagoville in one of the air-conditioned units..
When the power goes out, humidity and heat instantly build within the walls, Accurso said. On Aug. 8, as outside temperatures reached 103, the air conditioning went out in the building, he said. The bare concrete floors were slippery with condensation and the humidity was stifling. The building has no fans and the windows don’t open, he said.
“I can’t sit without sweating profusely,” Accurso said.
Small desk fans are available for people to buy at the commissary. They cost $30.70.
Last year during a power outage, Accurso said, his roommate developed heatstroke. He spent four hours in the medical unit, “got dosed with a ton of blood pressure meds” and the facility placed a fan directly in the doorway of the room.
Dr. Sameed Khatana, assistant professor of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, said heat-related illnesses and deaths depend on a number of factors, including whether the person is able to cool down and their pre-existing health conditions. If someone’s internal body temperature becomes too high, they may experience heatstroke, the mortality rate for which can be as high as 80% when treatment is delayed.
Prolonged exposure to hot temperatures can exacerbate or cause a plethora of other medical conditions, Khatana, who is a cardiologist, said.
“Even without the extreme case scenario of heatstroke, people can still have health issues,” he said. “If someone’s in a hot environment, and there is no air conditioning — especially given the kind of conditions that have occurred this summer and in the last couple of years — some of those adverse health effects can definitely be a concern.”
‘Management is embarrassed’
Freeman, president of the Local 1637 union, said the facility is riddled with infrastructure issues, including the power outages.
“Typically, everything in that institution is basically just kind of pieced together,” he said. “The running joke is that everything runs off duct tape and band-aids.”
At Seagoville, the union warned the warden about the power issues six to eight months ago, Freeman said.
The Bureau of Prisons is well aware of air conditioning issues across its facilities. In May, an audit from the Office of the Inspector General estimated $212 million would be needed to fix HVACs across the bureau.
At Seagoville, the Bureau of Prisons came up with a faulty, short-term solution to electrical issues — one diesel generator hooked up to multiple buildings, Freeman said.
“Instead of updating and upgrading (the electrical system) they just pulled a generator up to the building and hooked it up and it was insufficient,” he said. “It burned up breaker boxes, which is a fire hazard.”
Two months ago, Freeman said, the faulty electrical system almost burned down the recreation office. The building had to be vacated for at least a month.
On Aug. 3, Freeman and other leadership of the Seagoville officers’ union met with the associate warden. The union again discussed the dangers of the power going out at the prison, saying the outages are “causing undue hardship on the staff and inmates assigned to these areas,” according to notes from the meeting obtained by the Star-Telegram.
Associate Warden A. Greenfield said in the meeting that a circuit panel was ordered to hold higher capacity, and additional vendors were working on the issue.
“Management is embarrassed by the lack of being able to fix this issue,” the meeting notes, which were signed by Freeman and the associate warden, said.
In addition to facing power outages and lack of air conditioning, those inside Seagoville struggle with chronic understaffing. The facility is operating at about half of the staff it needs, Freeman said.
In mid-August, a correctional officer was the sole staff member supervising 150 incarcerated people in one section of the prison. The air conditioning and power failed intermittently in the section, increasing the temperature and stress levels. People were not able to leave for recreation time because of staffing shortages. There used to be two staff members assigned to the section, but budget cuts eliminated one position.
The staff member was attacked by several people in the section, Freeman said, and had to go to the hospital and will be out for an extended period of time.
“Along with the heat and air not working, and they’re not getting the time they need to go out and do recreation and burn off steam, it’s very frustrating and then they’re just going to take it out on the officers,” Freeman said.
Staff shortages have also resulted in administrative staff being pulled into the units to work as officers, including the warden himself.
“I’ve been in prisons for 30 years, and I’ve never seen the warden work as an officer,” Freeman said.
Federal facilities are understaffed across the country and the Bureau of Prisons has cut funding for thousands of positions. In 2018, according to a February 2021 report from the Government Accountability Office, the BOP eliminated 5,100 authorized positions.
“It’s a very volatile situation. And the end result is the corrections officers are the ones going to take the hit, right?” Freeman said. “If you took those people that were in charge of the budget out of Washington and you brought them in here and made them go through the conditions that our officers are going through, they would resolve it.”