Her son Jon Anthony was found unresponsive in his cell at TDCJ’s Estelle Unit near Huntsville on June 28. He died suddenly at 36 years old. According to the Texas Attorney General’s custodial death report, the cause of death is pending autopsy results.
Naranjo and dozens of other advocates protesting the dangerous heat in TDCJ prisons believe air conditioning could have prevented Southards’ death. They are advocating for temperature regulation to keep cells between 65 and 85 degrees.
As Texas experiences an oppressive heat wave, 70% of TDCJ facilities do not have air conditioning in the housing units. According to a 2022 study by the Texas A&M Hazard Reduction and Recovery Center, “temperatures inside units have been shown to regularly reach 110 degrees and in at least one unit have topped 149 degrees.”
“It’s inhumane,” State Rep. Carl Sherman, D-Desoto, said. “We’re baking people. That’s not right.”
The Texas Department of Criminal Justice declined Nexstar’s invitation to interview on this subject. Gov. Abbott’s office has not yet responded to a request for comment.
Sherman filed legislation along with several other bipartisan lawmakers to fund and mandate air conditioning in TDCJ facilities. In this year’s regular session, the Texas House approved $545 million to do so.
Those efforts passed the House with overwhelming, bipartisan support, but failed to gain approval in the Texas Senate.
Sherman is now calling on Gov. Greg Abbott to take emergency action.
“It is up to the governor, if he is able to fit this in. I know that he has a Texas House, bipartisan support, that’s ready for us to respond to this crisis. People are dying. And they don’t have to,” he said. “It just doesn’t make sense. We’ve got surplus of billions of dollars, in fact, $30-plus billion when you don’t even count the Rainy Day Fund, which puts it at over $50 billion. And yet we don’t have the resources to take care of humanity?”
At least 52 people have died while incarcerated in TDCJ facilities since June 1. Among them are young and healthy 23, 26, 35 or 36 year olds, some of whom have been determined to have died from cardiac arrest.
TDCJ has not reported a heat-related death since 2012. Lawmakers and advocates present Tuesday suspect those deaths are undercounted.
Action may be too little, too late, for grieving mothers like Tona Naranjo. Yet, she said, their fight for change is just beginning.
“This is a state of emergency, people. It’s too late for my son. But it’s not too late for change and it needs to happen today,” Naranjo said.