All summer long, incarcerated people have been dying from heat in U.S. prisons. The Prison Policy Initiative reports that temperature spikes are driving the increase in mortality nationwide: extreme heat days increase deaths by 3.5 percent, and two- to three-day heat waves cause increases of 5.5 percent and 7.4 percent respectively. The impact of the heat was highest in the Northeast, where two-day heat waves caused a 21 percent increase in deaths in prisons.
Prisons are literally “heating people to death.”
Since the summer began, at least 51 people have died in unair-conditioned Texas prisons. Elizabeth Hagerty was one of those people; she was found dead in her cell on June 30, a little over a month before she was due to be paroled. As temperatures soared across the country, incarcerated people from Maryland to California have been forced to find creative ways to keep cool. While prison commissaries might offer some items to make the heat more bearable, those items are often too expensive for incarcerated people to afford — like a cooling towel in Oregon sold at almost twice its actual price in 2021. Texas prisons increased the price of bottled water by six cents a bottle in the week after Hagerty’s death — a small increase for people on the outside, but an insurmountable barrier for incarcerated people who are not paid for their labor and rely on struggling families for money to spend in the commissary.
Incarcerated in solitary confinement in Texas, I (Kwaneta Harris) have noted that the temperature in my cell has reached 130 degrees in past summers. This summer has been worse. When a sergeant fainted because of the heat in solitary confinement, I noted that he was reassigned to another building. I and the others in solitary got no such relief. Because of my history of sexual victimization, I had never undressed in front of others. But in the last few weeks, survival has won out. I and others in solitary have tried to stay cool by donning “prison bikinis”: wearing only our underwear in our cells. I felt “violated and demeaned” by officers leering and making comments about the “flatness of her stomach,” but faced with the unrelenting heat, I felt I had little choice. I wrapped myself in a wet sheet, like a mummy, to avoid their comments.
But sitting around in constantly wet garments that rubbed against their skin led to rashes among the women: plum-colored raw areas beneath the breast and stomach folds and in the inner groins. The commissary sold out of affordable anti-fungal cream, so I bought the more expensive medicine ($8 for a bottle of anti-fungal cream for athlete’s foot and $10 for a tube of Monistat) and made packets for other women in solitary who could not afford their own. Ultimately, many women went from “prison bikini” to nudist resort, sitting naked, holding up body parts to relieve the rashes underneath, and trying to cover their doors to preserve their privacy.
One woman incarcerated with me describes her plight as “whack-a-mole;” she ties her breasts up halter style around her neck to heal the rash underneath, which leads to a rash on the back of her neck. Another woman ties her breasts to a cloth and to the window bars, like a pulley. One night, she slept with a breast hanging out of her window through the bars. She was awakened by a male officer pinching her nipple.
The women whom I’m incarcerated with swap ideas to stay cool: flood your cell with toilet water, lie on the floor on your back with your heels up, and point your fan toward your body. Women go anywhere to get into air conditioning, taking visits with people they don’t want to see, asking doctors question after question just to remain in air-conditioned areas. At worst, a few women have attempted suicide just to get into the emergency room to wait in the air-conditioning until a bed is available. In response, the guards have used pepper spray, making the already steamy, thick air that much less breathable, burning the lips and nasal passages of everyone within its reach. Being in solitary feels like being cooked alive.
The Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution prohibits the use of cruel and unusual punishment. Federal courts have held that exposure to excessive heat is unconstitutional, so long as prison officials know about the harm and are “deliberately indifferent” to it. When correctional officers are being reassigned after fainting in the heat, it’s hard to believe that prison officials don’t know about the impact of the heat on those who can’t escape it. And as the planet continues to warm as a result of climate change, these conditions will only become more severe over time.
In one Texas prison, and for one group of people, the world did get a little cooler for a short time. After their windows were nailed shut, a “cooling system” (the correctional officers say it’s not air-conditioning) was installed in the women’s solitary at Gatesville Correctional Facility. It was still 85 to 90 degrees in the solitary cells after the system’s installation. And the system died just over a week after being installed.