Living on Earth: Overheated in Prison

Air Date: Week of July 28, 2023

The Coffield Unit, a Texas prison that can house over 4,000 inmates, is located two hours east of Waco in unincorporated Anderson County. (Photo: Paul Flahive, Texas Public Radio)

The summer of 2023 has seen record temperatures and extreme heat waves that can be particularly dangerous for prison inmates without access to air conditioning. Texas Public Radio’s Paul Flahive tells the story of overheated prisoners in Texas.



Transcript

CURWOOD: From PRX and the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios at the University of Massachusetts Boston, this is Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood.

O’NEILL: And I’m Aynsley O’Neill.

Around the world, record breaking heat waves have sparked a new round of climate chaos, from heat advisories to severe flooding. And starting around July 24th in Algeria, wildfires. Nearly 100 blazes have caused dozens of deaths and forced thousands of evacuations.

DEUTSCHE WELLE REPORTER: The extreme heat and high winds have made it harder for emergency crews to contain them. As flames burnt into the night, an orange glow shrouded the mountainous Kabyle region. Fires spread to residential areas, sweeping through several villages. Much of Algeria’s northern provinces have been torched. Homes, trees, and land left in ashes.

O’NEILL: Closer to home, Texas has been seeing heatwaves push temperatures over 110 degrees Fahrenheit. This is proving especially dangerous for the often-forgotten population of prisoners. More than two-thirds of the state’s prisons lack air conditioning, leaving around 100,000 inmates unable to keep cool in the summers. The Texas Department of Criminal Justice maintains that there have been no heat-related deaths in state-run prisons since 2012, but independent groups say otherwise. A 2022 study led by Brown University found 271 deaths tied to a lack of air conditioning in Texan prisons between the years of 2001 and 2019. And with the Summer of 2023 seeing heat wave after heat wave in much of the state, eyes are turning towards the vulnerable prison population of Texas. From San Antonio, Texas Public Radio’s Paul Flahive has the story.

FLAHIVE: This Texas inmate says the best way to describe what it’s like to be in a Texas prison cell without air conditioning is to think barbecue.

INMATE: Like you’re standing over a grill all day.

FLAHIVE: “It’s like standing over a grill all day.” We aren’t using this inmate’s name because Texas prison rules bar him from giving phone interviews, and he worries about retribution from administrators. He says he goes to bed drenched in sweat every night and wakes up drenched every day. In between he tries to stay cool by dousing himself in water.

June 2023 temperature readings of Texas Department of Criminal Justice facilities. Yellow indicates facilities that felt temperatures over 85 degrees Fahrenheit, orange indicates temperatures over 90 degrees, and red is for temperatures over 100 degrees. (Photo: Courtesy of Texas Department of Criminal Justice. Color Coding by TPR.)

INMATE: The lowest you are, the cooler it is. So I put I put water on my ground. I lay in it sometimes. It’s just me pretty much naked in the cell.

FLAHIVE: Data from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice obtained from a state lawmaker show its 68 prisons without air conditioning were sweltering last month, averaging well over 85 degrees. That would be a safety violation for a county jail, that mandates temperatures remain below 85. But no such regulation exists for state prisons, some of which reached as high as 106 degrees last month. And those readings weren’t taken at the height of the facilities’ heat. Heat estimates are as high as 115 degrees.

ALDACO: You know it’s hot, it’s hot.

FLAHIVE: Don Aldaco spent 14 years in unairconditioned prisons across Texas. He was paroled in April. Aldaco says he was lucky to get three hours of sleep a night on the hottest days.

ALDACO: Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night where I’m pouring sweat. You know, I’m pouring sweat, but I’m thinking that I’ve got something crawling on me. But it’s the actual sweat pouring off your body.

FLAHIVE: Aldaco says he’s lucky to get three hours of sleep a night on the hottest days. A spokeswoman for the state prison system says they take special precautions for heat sensitive inmates, keeping them in air-conditioned beds. For everyone else, they offer limited access to respite or air-conditioned areas, and when possible, offer additional showers, ice, and allow for personal fans. But the inmate in the north Texas prison we spoke with says those efforts aren’t enough, and he says correction officers blame an ongoing staffing crisis.

This graphic shows state prisons in relation to temperature, and marked with color-coded indicators as to their air conditioning status. (Photo: Texas Public Radio)

INMATE: Their excuse for everything is the staff. People that got the staff, we’re not getting showers. You might get a shower once or twice a week. You might go to break once or twice a week. You get cold water once or twice a day, and their excuse always is: the staff, staff, staff.

FLAHIVE: The inmate says he’s concerned about his health. A 2022 study by the Journal of the American Medical Association found 271 prisoner deaths in Texas facilities without air conditioning between 2001 and 2019 may be attributable to extreme heat days.

MOODY: I think it is very well documented that the heat has contributed to deaths in this prison system.

FLAHIVE: Texas State House member Joe Moody, a Democrat, has for years tried to pass legislation to air condition all state prisons.

MOODY: There’s no need for us to continue to allow folks to cook, literally cook, in our prisons. And that’s, that’s something we should we should just always find unacceptable.

FLAHIVE: House Rep Moody’s bill again failed. Then the Republican-dominated state Senate stripped $500 million out of the budget bill that would have dramatically increased air conditioning in prisons throughout the system. For Living on Earth, I’m Paul Flahive.

 

Links

Learn more on Texas Public Radio’s webpage

Learn more about reporter Paul Flahive

Brown University | “Extreme Temperatures Take Deadly Toll on People in Texas Prisons, Study Finds”

 

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