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Hundreds of Thousands of Incarcerated People Are in Danger Amid Scorching Heat

This summer is among the hottest on record, but many people in U.S. prisons can’t access even basic ways to cool down.

Across the country, as temperatures soar, people behind bars describe feeling as if they are melting or being baked alive in units that frequently lack air conditioning or cooling mechanisms. 

This summer is set to be among the top 10 hottest on record with heat waves melting roads across Europe, causing thousand-acre fires in Texas and California, scorching people across the globe. Across the country, as temperatures soar, people behind bars describe feeling as if they are melting or being baked alive in units that frequently lack air conditioning or cooling mechanisms.

Temperatures in parts of Texas have soared to over 100 degrees every day for the past week — with no relief in sight. The state has the tenth-highest incarceration rate in the nation, with 840 of every 100,000 people behind bars. While Texas state prisons have air conditioning in their administrative, education and medical areas, nearly 70 percent lack air conditioning in the housing units (which can incarcerate over 120,000 people). According to The Intercept, 9 out of every 10 of the state’s carceral facilities are in places where the heat index reaches over 90 degrees more than 50 days each year.

That includes Gatesville, which is home to five Texas prisons (four of which are women’s prisons) and one state jail (which incarcerates people with sentences of less than two years). Since mid-June, temperatures in Gatesville have hovered at or above 100 degrees.

The Texas Department of Criminal Justice told Truthout that its 15 female facilities are at least partially air-conditioned. But air-conditioning is absent in the female segregation units, where people spend at least 23 hours a day locked behind a steel door in a concrete cell.

“I am melting!” wrote “Diana,” who is in one of those women’s prisons, in a letter to Truthout. (Diana asked that Truthout not publish her legal name to prevent retaliation.)

She can open her window, but it has no screen to keep out mosquitoes and other insects. She and others frequently use mesh bags as makeshift screens, allowing them to keep their windows open with less chance of being bitten or having a bug-infested cell. Now, even that small mitigation is being banned by the new prison administration, Diana said.

Officers recently told her that the new warden has instructed them to issue disciplinary tickets to women who cover their windows, use their blankets to block the overhead room light, or place their fans in the windows to create a breeze. “Punishment is a major case,” Diana explained, referring to what the prison would call a serious violation of prison rules. A “major case” would result in 60 to 90 days of being stripped of all belongings except for a fan, a handful of hygiene products and correspondence supplies. That means no radio or tablet to break up the monotony and keep track of news outside prison. No books. No magazines. No photos or letters from family members.

The Texas Department of Criminal Justice told Truthout that a review of the department’s database does not show that these types of cases are actually being written. But for Diana and people in the segregation unit, even the threat can be enough to deter them from trying to alleviate the heat.

“I mistakenly believed I was acclimated to the heat,” Diana wrote in another letter, which arrived water-buckled from her perspiration. “I knew what to do — stay in soaking wet clothes and [stay] hydrated.” But during one of those 100-degree days, she became dizzy and nauseated. When she was allowed out of her cell for her hour in the outdoor recreation, she remained dizzy. In the shower, she was so dizzy that she fell and hit her head. Fortunately, a sympathetic officer helped her get up, get dressed and then sat her in a chair in front of a fan. When Diana attempted to walk back to her cell, she fainted.

“In all the time I’ve been in prison, I’ve never fainted,” Diana wrote. “It’s very scary.”

Her fears are not unfounded. Since 1998, the state’s prisons have documented at least 23 heat-related deaths. In the 10 months between January to October 2018, prisons have recorded heat-related illnesses among 79 incarcerated people and prison staff. The Prison Policy Initiative found that at least 13 states in the nation’s hottest regions, including Texas, lack universal air conditioning in their prison systems.

Studies have found that prolonged exposure to extreme heat can lead to dehydration and heat stroke. Kristina Dahl, a senior climate scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, has stated that, in an average year, heat kills more people in the United States than any other type of extreme weather. Extreme heat can also impact internal organs, leading to renal failure, heart attack and strokes.

Furthermore, many people behind bars have health conditions or take medications, such as psychotropic and high blood pressure medications, which render them vulnerable to dire consequences from extreme heat. But behind bars, they lack the ability to visit a nearby cooling center, soak in the tub or drink unlimited cold water.

It’s not only Texas where summers are sweltering — and where people locked in cells and dormitories fear for their safety. In some parts of Washington, a state not typically known for heat waves, temperatures have reached triple digits in some prison towns while others hover around 90 degrees. During last summer’s heat wave, people incarcerated in 10 of the state’s 12 prisons filed nearly 100 grievances about the extreme temperatures they experienced inside and the state prison system’s failure to establish clear and actionable heat plans.

Additionally, behind bars, violence escalates with the heat. Kimberly Henny, a 55-year-old incarcerated at the federal prison in Waseca, Minnesota, told Truthout that the lack of ventilation makes the housing units much hotter than the 85-degree temperatures recorded in the town itself. She worries about both heat exhaustion and increased violence as tempers flare while access to mental health services remains minimal. She described multiple fights, some of which involved beatings with padlocks, and a stabbing in her housing unit within a one-week period. (Another woman confirmed, writing, “The violence here is awful.”)

No Relief in Sight

In 2014, men incarcerated at Texas’s Wallace Pack Unit prison filed suit charging that keeping them in temperatures that regularly rose above 100 degrees constituted cruel and unusual punishment. The court agreed with them and ruled that the prison system had been deliberately indifferent to the potential harm of excessive heat in its facilities. The department continued to fight the lawsuit, costing the state over $7 million in legal fees, before settling in 2018 and agreeing to install air conditioning. The cost to install air conditioning at the Pack Unit was $4 million.

That years-long fight — and settlement — provides no relief for those in many of the state’s other prisons. And legislative attempts to ameliorate the effects of the annual heat waves have failed.

In May 2021, the Texas House of Representatives passed a bill that would have allotted approximately $100 million to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice every two years to expand air conditioning and cool its prisons to below 85 degrees during the summer swelter. That was hopeful news for Diana and the thousands of others incarcerated throughout the state. Then, the bill died in the Senate.

According to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, when the heat index rises above 90 degrees, incarcerated people are provided with additional water and ice. “Everyone has access to ice and water, which is continuously being resupplied,” Amanda Hernandez, the department’s director of communications, said in an email to Truthout. In addition, incarcerated people are permitted to wear shorts and t-shirts in some areas and can request access to respite areas to cool off.

But that doesn’t always happen, charges a recent report from the Texas A&M University’s Hazard Reduction and Recovery Center. Incarcerated people across the state, including Diana, have reported not being given water or ice, being threatened with disciplinary tickets for not wearing their full uniforms, and being denied access to respite areas (or being taken to respite areas which are just as hot — and sometimes filthier — than their housing units).

Hernandez declined to comment on the report and its allegations.

Substandard Cooling Systems

Over 2,000 people are imprisoned at the Central California Women’s Facility in the state’s central area. (Not every person in that prison identifies as female.) In summers, the prison relies on swamp coolers (also known as evaporative coolers) to keep temperatures down.

“These swamp coolers consistently break down and need constant repair,” one woman wrote in 2017. “Triple digit temperatures are always expected every summer. I do not know if CDCR [the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation] bothered to prepare for next summer’s heat by taking into consideration the rate of how often these swamp coolers break down by actually buying parts that are needed for next summer so we won’t be in the same boat as we are this summer.”

Five years later, some at that prison continue to report that the coolers do little to alleviate the heat. “There is no a/c and they rarely turn on the swamp cooler,” “Taylor” wrote to Truthout. (Taylor asked that her legal name not be used to prevent retaliation.)

Those incarcerated have the option of purchasing a fan but not everyone can afford the $10 to $25 price tag. “I went 12 years without one,” Taylor wrote.

During previous years, housing units had ice machines, although they were frequently broken. When they were functioning, however, they could use ice to cool down. Now, however, people inside report no access to ice or ice water.

The same holds true for the state’s other female prison — the California Institution for Women (CIW) in southern California. Temperatures are currently slightly lower — in the low 90s — than in the central valley, but conditions still cause advocates to be concerned, particularly because CIW houses many of the state’s aging incarcerated women.

On July 1, the California Coalition for Women Prisoners sent a letter on behalf of their imprisoned members to CIW’s acting warden, Jennifer Core, outlining their concerns about high temperatures and the prison’s continued lockdowns in response to COVID outbreaks. (As of July 26, the prison has 27 active cases and had 60 new cases reported within the past 14 days. In mid-July, the prison had reported 210 new cases within a two-week period.)

“We know that an evaporated cooling system was installed in the housing units fairly recently. What continues to be unclear to us is how effective this system actually is at providing cooler temperatures inside the cells,” the organization’s letter stated. Housing units had previously had thermometers, allowing staff and incarcerated people to gauge the temperature inside at any given time. Now, thermometers are kept inside the staff room, which is air-conditioned, and brought out for routine checks.

“I think we can all acknowledge that a C.O. [correctional officer] walking down the hallway with a pre-cooled thermometer will not provide an accurate reading of the actual temperature,” the organization’s letter continued. “It would be unreasonable to expect the C.O. to stand in the hallway or in a cell for the minimum 20 minutes it would take for that thermometer to recalibrate and then provide an accurate reading.”

LaVelma doesn’t need to look at a thermometer to know that the new units do not provide much cooling. “We’re burning up!” she wrote to Truthout. “The later it gets the hotter it will get. So keep us in your prayers please!” (LaVelma asked that her first name not be published to prevent retaliation.)

Rita Deanda agrees. “It is so hot here and worse in our cells,” she wrote to Truthout. In response to queries about the cooling system, she responded, “The cooling system was installed do they work? Do we feel cooler? Are you kidding me not at all it was a waste of millions of dollars.”

During these heat waves, Deanda and others typically take multiple showers in an effort to cool down. But when their housing units are on quarantine — which Deanda’s is now — showers are only at assigned times. She explains her strategy for staying cool while locked in her cell: “I wet a towel, [wear] a sports bra, boxers and lay the wet towel on my body and have the fan blow on me. Sometimes I have to wake up and wet the towel again because it dries. It is the only way I can sleep at night.”

Deanda, who is 57, acknowledges that, despite having spent the past 20 years in prison, she remains in good health. In contrast, LaVelma, now in her 70s, struggles with asthma, shortness of breath, fatigue and allergies. In 2020, she contracted COVID, which continues to exacerbate her breathing problems. Yet, with temperatures continuing to reach the 90s all this week, she has little relief in sight.

CDCR did not respond to our request for comment.

Uneven Access to Air Conditioning

“Alice” is currently incarcerated at the federal prison in Aliceville, Alabama, where outside temperatures have remained in the 90s. (Alice asked that her real name be withheld to avoid retaliation.)

While Alabama state prisons lack universal air conditioning, the federal prison in Aliceville, which opened in 2013, is fully air conditioned. “It’s hospital-cold in here at all times; in all of the housing units, all offices, the cafeteria, library, kitchen, laundry, etc.” Alice told Truthout. “So, we are fine except when working outside but they do encourage plenty of water and let you go inside if you are too hot. So, while Alabama is hot as hell, it’s very manageable in here.”

Oklahoma’s women’s prisons, both of which opened in 1998 have air conditioning. Although temperatures in the outside town of McLoud are expected to soar above 100 degrees this week and throughout the summer, those at Mabel Bassett Correctional Center, the state’s largest women’s prison, have occasionally reported blocking the vents to prevent extreme cold.

At the lower-security Eddie Warrior Correctional Center in Oklahoma, however, “Edie,” who asked to use a pseudonym to prevent retaliation, reports that the air conditioning units have been struggling, and sometimes breaking down, in the triple-degree weather. Women who have bought individual fans from the prison commissary can only use them if their bunks are next to an electrical outlet, which, Edie noted, “are few and far between in the open dorms.” Still, she acknowledges that the women there are lucky. “The men in Oklahoma prisons have no air at all I have always heard/been told and I can’t imagine what that is like especially in this heat!!!” she reflected.

Advocates and family members continue to press prisons to provide adequate relief from the summer swelter. In Florida, political candidates joined family members and advocates at an Orlando rally demanding that the state’s department of correction provide air conditioning in all of its prisons. The Texas Prisons Community Advocates — an organization co-founded by the wife of an incarcerated Texan — has been pressing a similar demand in the Lone Star State.

Even in Texas, some lawmakers are recognizing the extent of the problem — and the lack of political willpower to address it. On July 25, at a hearing of the Texas legislature’s committee on corrections, Representative Terry Canales pressed his fellow lawmakers about the state’s inaction. “I don’t think we have a money problem. We have a give-a-damn problem. Out of sight, out of mind,” he declared.

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