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In Brutal Summer Heat, Prisoners Say Their Cells Are Like “Stifling Hot Coffins”

Days of extreme heat without access to enough water and cooled air become deadlier for an aging prison population.

A jail cell similar to the one where a prisoner at Fort Bend County Jail in Richmond, Texas, recently committed suicide.

Shortly after midnight this past Friday, guards found 37-year-old Elizabeth Hagerty dead in her unair-conditioned Texas prison cell. The day before, temperatures had reached nearly 100 degrees.

Hagerty was scheduled for parole on August 2. She had been sentenced to four years in prison for not meeting the many requirements of her 10-year probation sentence for a fight with an ex-girlfriend.

Her mother-in-law, Martha Romero, told Truthout that Hagerty had diabetes, asthma and high blood pressure, but was otherwise healthy.

In mid-June, Hagerty was transferred from an air-conditioned prison to the Dr. Lane Murray Unit. Ten days later, she told Romero that she was feeling sick, could not keep food down, and had lost 12 pounds over the past week. Two days later, she was dead.

This past June, 32 people died in Texas state prisons. During the last week of June, three people, including Hagerty, died in Texas prisons that lacked air-conditioning. All were in their thirties. Thirty-five-year-old Tommy McCullough died while mowing the grass at the Thomas Goree Unit in Huntsville. His family told KXAN that he had been complaining about excessive heat and insufficient access to water all week.

Romero called the prison, but the family has no answers. “We won’t find out till the autopsy,” Romero said. “Even then, they’re not going to say, ‘It was so hot that her heart was working hard and her blood pressure went up.’ They’ll never use heat as a cause.”

While the Texas Department of Criminal Justice has not reported a heat-related death since 2012, a study found that extreme heat was likely behind 271 summer deaths between 2001 and 2019.

As climate change increases temperatures, jails and prisons become summer hot boxes. The New York Times has predicted that at least one of the next five years will exceed 2016 temperatures, which was the planet’s hottest year. Even if it doesn’t top 2016, this summer is expected to be hotter than average across the United States — and that means more heat-related illnesses and more heat-related deaths.

A photo of a person taking a selfie with a guitar, with text below detailing the manner of deaths happening within Texas prisons
Liz Hagerty before her 2021 imprisonment.

“A 15-Pound Blanket of Musky, Smoldering Heat”

“I have become one with my sweat,” RòDerick Zavala declared. Zavala is incarcerated at the Menard Correctional Center on the banks of the Mississippi River. Opened in 1878, the prison currently incarcerates nearly 2,200 men. Menard is one of the many Illinois prisons that lack an effective cooling system.

The 46-year-old shares a concrete and steel cell with a cellmate. “No air gets in and no air escapes,” he told Truthout. The windows open only six inches but their screens are caked with years of debris, dirt and sludge, forming another barrier to any breeze that might blow in.

Many of the 15 fans along the corridor of his housing unit are broken. Those that work have not been cleaned in years, creating cyclones of dirt, dust and dander.

With COVID came weeks and months of lockdowns. Confined to their cells, incarcerated people were unable to seek slightly cooler temperatures outside or access even the eight-ounce cup of ice normally allocated to each person once a day. These lockdowns have continued far past the officially declared end of the COVID emergency. In mid-June, Zavala told Truthout that he had only been outside twice during the past two months.

“Seven days a week, 24 hours a day, [I’m] in a place that feels as though I’m wearing a 15-pound blanket of musky, smoldering heat,” he said.

Zavala suffers from severe asthma, sinus issues and bouts of bronchitis. The combination of summer heat and dust tornadoes often leave him gasping for breath. And, he added, “there are many with worse health issues than mine, including elderly human beings.”

Even as technology advances to cool homes and businesses, jails and prisons have been slow, if not resistant, to adapting ways to systemically cool their environments. Those confined inside prisons have also been aging, making them more susceptible to the extreme temperatures and lack of respite. Between 1995 and 2010, the number of people ages 55 and older nearly quadrupled in prisons. By the end of 2020, more than 22 percent (or over 261,000 people) in U.S. prisons were 50 or older. By 2030, experts estimate that one-third of the nation’s prisoners will be over 50.

Moreover, prolonged exposure to extreme heat can impact internal organs, causing renal failure, heart attack and strokes. It can also lead to heat stroke and dehydration. In at least 10 Illinois prisons, water contamination prevents incarcerated people from staving off dehydration.

“Our Walls Start to Sweat”

Stateville Correctional Center is approximately 40 miles southwest of Chicago and Lake Michigan. Still, summers feel stifling in the nearly century-old prison.

“When the temperature gets in the 80s and up, our walls start to sweat,” Manuel Metlock told Truthout.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other health experts advise staying hydrated to avoid heat illness. But Stateville is one of several Illinois prisons where legionella, the bacteria that causes the severe lung infection Legionnaires’ disease, was found in the water.

Metlock buys bottled water from the commissary. Every two weeks, he can buy up to 24 16-ounce bottles, an amount which he notes is not enough to stay hydrated. During the prison’s first shift, staff distribute drinking water from bags; that is the only way that people without money can access clean drinking water.

In the summers before COVID, Metlock and others might escape their stultifying windowless cells by going to the yard. But, like many other prisons across the nation, Stateville began experiencing staff shortages during the pandemic and, as of September 2022, staffing levels were at two-thirds. The lack of staff has caused cancellations of programs, school, yard and chow — and more time locked in a cell that feels 10 degrees hotter than outside.

“It feels very sticky and all we can do is strip down to our undergarments, lay under the fan and try our best not to move,” he wrote in an e-message. That fan is the size of a grapefruit. Metlock washes in cold water five times a day, but even that relief is fleeting.

“Like Hell on Earth”

Every May, Paula checked the condition of her fan. If it was more than two years old, she spent $25 to buy a new one at the commissary. “You need that fan,” she told Truthout. “It helps you survive.” (Paula asked that only her first name be published to protect her privacy.)

Paula spent 32 years in Illinois’s prisons. Every summer, she and other women showered several times a day. They waited in line to collect ice from the ice machines in the day room (the common area of the housing unit), they sat in front of their fans in wet bathrobes, and they slept in wet bed sheets.

Those few options were slowly taken from them. In 2013 the state shuttered Dwight Correctional Center. Paula was among those transferred 100 miles southwest to Logan Correctional Center. During the move, staff confiscated the prison-issued bathrobes. At Logan, the commissary sold terry cloth robes but, Paula explained, they were expensive and couldn’t get wet enough to cool the wearer.

The water streaming from the shower heads was too hot for relief. Women filled empty soda bottles with cool water from the bathroom sink and ducked into the shower to douse themselves.

“Women have unique needs when it comes to temperature control,” said Alexis Mansfield, senior adviser at the Women’s Justice Institute, a nonprofit working with people in Illinois women’s prisons. “When it comes to people in women’s prisons who are pregnant, experiencing menopause, or perhaps taking hormones due to being transgender, the effect of not having air-conditioning is compounded.”

That’s what Paula learned when she hit perimenopause, or the period before menopause, and began having hot flashes. “You felt like you were on fire,” she described.

In 2020 and 2021, as a COVID precaution, prison staff stopped allowing women into the day room. Occasionally, a sympathetic officer would allow one woman to fetch a bucket of ice and distribute it to the women along the corridor. They were not allowed into the yard, which was always cooler than their cells. Instead, women were left to swelter in their four-person cells.

“You’d have the fan on high with a wet sheet on top of you,” Paula recalled. “It was a touch of hell on earth.”

That’s what Lydia Vision recalls as well. Vision spent 19.5 years in Illinois prisons, none of which had air-conditioning. “The floors sweat. The walls sweat. You are in a hot box,” she told Truthout. In 2019, she began taking estrogen and a testosterone blocker, which provided some respite. But that relief was interrupted on several occasions when staff failed to refill her hormone prescriptions.

“When my hormones dipped, it kicked me into the sweats. It was like instant menopause,” Vision told Truthout. “All of a sudden, I’m raining sweat. And there’s no relief to that.”

Hot Flashes Amid Triple-Digit Temperatures

“The heat has attacked,” Kwaneta Harris told Truthout. By mid-June, temperatures in Gatesville, Texas, were nearing triple digits. Gatesville is home to five prisons, including the Dr. Lane Murray Unit where Harris is incarcerated and where Hagerty died.

By mid-June, her toothpaste had liquefied. Even nightfall brings little relief. Harris spends them tossing and turning, drenched in sweat.

The air is thick with humidity, and she feels as if she’s trying to suck oxygen through a straw, she described. She’s thirsty all the time and, while prison policy states that officers provide additional drinking water, showers and access to an air-conditioned respite area, Harris said that none of the staff seem to know where the respite unit is located and that short staffing has meant that they often cannot accommodate requests for respite showers.

For women and others who menstruate and experience menopause, these triple-digit temperatures make them feel as if they have been set on fire.

Jack, a 56-year-old trans man, vividly recalls hitting menopause in August 2015. Temperatures that month reached 105° Fahrenheit during the day. Even after sunset, the concrete segregation cells at the Dr. Lane Murray Unit in Gatesville never quite cooled to a comfortable level.

Jack had gotten used to the hot flashes accompanying perimenopause. Even so, Jack, then 48, was unprepared for how these would intensify once he stopped menstruating. “The best way I can describe it is spontaneously bursting into flames without notice,” he told Truthout. Sitting in front of the fan in wet clothes failed to cool him down. His only relief was creating a pool of water on his floor and lying, naked, in it. That relief only lasted 30 minutes.

Rising Temperatures — and Ages — Behind Bars

Even in cooler states, the combination of rising temperatures and aging prisoners cause increasingly searing — and deadly — summers. Julie Skarha, author of the Texas prison mortality study, found that a two-day heat wave caused a 21 percent prison mortality rate in the Northeast.

Pamela Smart entered New York’s Bedford Hills Correctional Facility at age 25. Now 55, she has experienced three decades of summers behind bars. And she’s not the only one — over 20 percent of the 551 people at Bedford are 50 or older. Many suffer hot flashes, asthma and other health problems worsened by the summer swelter.

“I am constantly hearing on the news that in extreme heat, people should place curtains on their windows to block the sunlight, go into cooling centers, drink cold fluids, etc., but no one ever thinks about the people in prison who are locked up in overheated stifling hot coffins, otherwise known as cells,” she wrote in a July 2022 letter to Truthout.

The recreation area has two large fans, one of which is pointed toward the officers’ work station. No fans are in the kitchen area, phone room or corridors where the cells are located. Inside their cells, incarcerated people are permitted only one six-inch fan which, Smart said, “does nothing but circulate hot air.”

To make matters worse, the prison replaced its previous windows, which the women could open for the chance of a breeze. “They barely open, and have double panes of glass, bars, and a thick screen so no air goes through,” Smart described. Until 2001, staff had allowed the women to put a small curtain on the window to keep direct sunlight from overheating their cells. Then, the new superintendent abruptly stopped the practice.

In early June, smoke from hundreds of wildfires in Quebec engulfed New York State for a week. The smoke contained tiny particulate matter, PM 2.5, an air pollutant that is linked to asthma, heart disease, cognitive decline and respiratory infections. City officials canceled all outdoor activities and events and advised residents to stay indoors with their windows closed.

At Bedford Hills, the prison canceled outdoor recreation. But incarcerated residents still had to venture outside to pick up medicines or packages and to attend programs and work assignments. Closing windows would have meant broiling inside, so they remained open.

“No Political Will”

Of Texas’s 100 state prisons, only 31 have universal air-conditioning, or air-conditioning in all units. Fifty-five, including the Dr. Lane Murray Unit and Mountain View, have partial air-conditioning, and 14 have none.

In Texas, lawmakers introduced bills to tackle the extreme heat behind bars. HB1708 required Texas prisons to remain between 65 and 85 degrees Fahrenheit, a requirement for county jails since 1994. The bill was backed by formerly incarcerated people, prison guards, advocacy groups and Christian organizations, and not a single person signed up to oppose the bill. It ultimately died in the state’s Senate Committee on Finance.

The other bills, which would have regulated prison temperatures and installed air-conditioning in all housing areas, died in committee before being voted on.

Neither Harris nor Jack is surprised by the legislative failure.

“It is a form of punishment here in Texas,” Jack wrote, noting that the state spent $7.3 million fighting a lawsuit to install air-conditioning in one prison, which ultimately cost less than $4 million. “They have the money to do it. They just refuse to let us win.”

“There’s no political will to not cook people living and working in prisons,” Harris agreed.

Romero added that, had a judge not sentenced her daughter-in-law to four years in prison toward the end of her decade-long probation, Hagerty would still be alive.

These dozens of deaths have alarmed Texas lawmakers, family members and advocates, who are planning to converge on the state capitol in July to demand relief.

Changing the Climate Behind Bars Means Releasing People

From his cement cell in Illinois, Metlock asked, “What changes are needed to change the climate behind bars?”

Then he answered his own question: “To have real opportunities for people to come home.”

Illinois eliminated parole in 1978. That means that Metlock, imprisoned for the past 23 years for an act he committed at age 20, is expected to spend another 27 summers in prison.

“I haven’t had any disciplinary issues since 2005, I have 45 certificates, three degrees and a master’s degree.” Studies have shown that education reduces the risk of recidivism and, for those who have obtained master’s degrees, the recidivism rate is zero. But without legislative change, Metlock will not be able to argue for a second chance before age 70.

Illinois advocates are organizing to bring back parole. They’re also pushing for an elderly parole bill in which people ages 55 and older can apply for parole after 25 years in prison.

In New York, despite extensive organizing by incarcerated people, family members and advocates, lawmakers failed to pass two bills — elder parole, which would allow people ages 55 and older to appear before the parole board after 15 years in prison, and the Fair and Timely Parole Act, which would require the parole board to grant release unless the person poses a demonstrable safety risk.

Advocates in both states have vowed to continue their fight. Meanwhile, those locked behind bars face yet another broiling summer without relief.

“The fact that elderly prisoners have to endure the oppressive heat is just another reminder of the urgency to support legislation like Elder Parole, the Fair and Timely Parole Act, and [other] back-end reform efforts that reduce the sentences of those who have languished in our country’s prisons for years on end,” Smart reflected. “It is simply inhumane that our country confines the elderly, subjecting the infirm to such harrowing conditions. Much of the ‘tough-on-crime’ and ‘truth-in-sentencing’ legislation passed in the 1980s and ‘90s has had a drastic impact on carceral populations. Our prisons have become death camps for the elderly.”

This piece was published in collaboration with Stateville Speaks.

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