As a record heat wave sweeps across the South, Marci Marie, who did 10 years behind bars, worries about her friends in Texas prisons. The excessive heat will affect most of the country — The New York Times reports that 70% of Americans will see temperatures hit 90 degrees and above next week, and 55% might experience 100 degree weather or more — but temperatures are hitting extreme highs across the South. While much of the population will seek refuge in air-conditioned or shaded spaces, or have access to at least cold water showers, no such luxuries are afforded inmates in hot states across the South. Texas, with a prison population of 135,906, foremost among them. 

“During the summer months, you could feel your insides cooking,” Marie tells Truthdig, recounting her experiences as an inmate in Texas state prison. “Prisons are made of metal and brick. It’s like being baked in a concrete oven.” 

“Prisons are made of metal and brick. It’s like being baked in a concrete oven.” 

Texas is one of at least 13 hot states without universal A/C in state prisons. Meanwhile, large swaths of the state are baking in triple-digit temperatures. The results can be fatal: Between 2001 to 2019, there were 2,083 deaths in Texas prisons without air-conditioning and 1,381 in prisons with air-conditioning, according to the Harvard School of Public Health. 

“This could kill them, but if it doesn’t, it will certainly degrade their health over time,” researchers at Texas A&M concluded in a 2022 study.  They found that temperatures in prison regularly reach 110 degrees. In one case, they clocked a high of 149 degrees on the heat index. Plenty of populations — unhoused people, the elderly and eventually, all of us — are vulnerable to a swiftly heating planet, But prison inmates are perhaps uniquely impacted: they can’t take a cold shower or have a glass of ice water whenever they want to cool down. And the air is so stagnant and oppressive inmates have trouble breathing.

“It was hard to breathe,” Marie tells Truthdig. “Your body is telling you you couldn’t breathe in that kind of air, it’s so oppressive and thick, you had to force your body to breathe.”

The metal cots, Marie says, would get so hot the beds would burn women’s skin. Only when a friendly corrections officer came on duty were the women allowed to wet their prison uniforms and sleep on the concrete floor, which was cooler. “But then you had to wake up at shift change because this is considered an infraction,” says Marie.

Record heat has been observed across the country this week. Map courtesy of the NWS.

James, whose real name is being withheld for his protection, texted Truthdig on a burner phone from his solitary cell in a Texas facility. James has spent nearly 15 years alone in his small cell. As CIA whistleblower John Kiriakou has written, solitary confinement is physically and mentally crushing. The United Nations has categorized more than 15 days in solitary as torture.

Having a cellphone in prison is a felony, but James risks it to call attention to the plight of inmates suffering cruel and unusual punishment in the middle of a record-setting heatwave. “Being stuck in solitary cells like ovens for 23 to 24 hours a day…” he writes, “…. it shouldn’t be a death sentence because of the agency’s [Texas Department of Justice] lack of care.” 

Exposure to extreme heat wreaks havoc on virtually every internal organ and can lead to kidney failure, heart attack or stroke. “When people are in extreme heat, the brain has a thermoregulatory system — a kind of thermostat in it — and that gets overwhelmed, so that it no longer adapts correctly to the heat, so that the internal organs then get adversely affected,” Dr. David Eisenman, professor of medicine at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, told Healthline. 

Having a cellphone in prison is a felony, but James risks it to call attention to the plight of inmates suffering cruel and unusual punishment in the middle of a record-setting heatwave.

It’s not just a health issue. Extreme heat exposure can make already desperate people violent. In a 2021 study of inmates in Mississippi, researchers found that extreme heat substantially increases the rate of dangerous physical altercations. The study found that, on days with unsafe heat levels, daily violent interactions rose by 20%. “Rising global temperatures could substantially increase violence absent adjustment,” the researchers concluded. 

Marie is convinced that heat stroke was the cause of a recent death at her former facility. The department claimed the woman had died from “underlying conditions.” But Marie, who was in the same ward, isn’t buying it. She thinks the woman’s symptoms, which included vomiting, shaking and diarrhea suggest heat stroke.  In June alone, nine people have died in Texas prisons lacking climate control from what appears to be heat-related illness, the LoneStarLeft newsletter reports. Two were men in their 30s.

For years, activists and former inmates have lobbied state legislatures across the South to bring climate control into prisons, to no avail. In the latest legislative session in Texas, the House passed a bill that would require prisons to maintain temperatures between 65-85 degrees. It died in the finance committee. Now, Rep. Jon Rosenthal is calling for a special session to reintroduce a similar measure, but it doesn’t seem likely that Gov. Greg Abbott will agree.

It’s not politically advantageous for GOP lawmakers to have their constituents think they’re “babying” criminals at the taxpayer’s expense. This mindset is typified by Rep. Matt Schaeffer, a Republican who posted a link to a story about 24-year-old Patrick Crusius, who killed 23 people in an El Paso Walmart parking lot, on Twitter. “Sure you want to put air-conditioning in Texas Prisons? #txlege.” he asked. Crusius, who was sentenced to 90 life sentences July 7, will be serving all 90 of them in federal prison. Federal prisons have air-conditioning. 

Meanwhile, in Texas prisons and many others across the stifling South, the suffering goes on unabated.

What Might We Do?
  • Lobby representatives in the following states to equip state prison’s with A/C: Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas, Virginia
  • Donate to an individual inmate. In many states, they can purchase fans from the commissary but they’re prohibitively expensive for many. 
  • Advocate for early release of elderly and sick prisoners, who are especially vulnerable to the effects of extreme heat.
  • Write representatives to ensure prisoners get access to more water stations and additional access to showers.  
  • Make contact with a local corrections officer’ union — extreme heat conditions also put COs at risk of health problems and violence.
Possible Solutions
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