Texas prisons are unbearably hot. I live in one

Last month, a woman died.

What I know was only what guards told me after I saw the reflection of the ambulance lights, she complained of chest pains. Guards at Lane Murray Unit, a prison in Texas where I am also incarcerated, took her to medical twice and each time returned her to her bunk in the general population dorm. When the guards came to take her a third time, they found her dead.

What I now know is that 37-year-old Elizabeth Hagerty was one of at least 32 people to die last month in Texas prisons. Nine deaths, including Hagerty’s, happened this summer in prisons without air conditioning, according to reporting by FOX 7 Austin.

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As a record-breaking heat wave in Texas settles into its second month, I can’t follow normal heat advisory guidelines. I’m in solitary. No ice in my water and no air conditioning. A small fan is my only defense against heat pulsing through cement walls so burning hot when my leg grazes it during sleep I’m instantly awakened. I’m not even allowed to shade my window from the blazing sun. It would be a threat to security. My soda cans spontaneously burst, exploding like a gunshot, and spraying brown fizz on my sheets. My toothpaste is liquid.

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Guards join in the laughter when the sergeant takes the daily in-cell temperature. This brick, steel and concrete sun-soaked building is always 80, even when the heat index and actual temperature reach triple digits.

Only about 30% of Texas’ 100 prison units are fully air conditioned. More than 120,000 people are incarcerated across the state prison system.

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Once, when I fainted, medical staff recorded my cell temperature at 129 degrees. During heat waves, I pour tepid tap water on the cement floor and my underclothes and lie in it very still. Being sautéed wasn’t part of my plea bargain.

A proposal to reduce extreme heat in Texas prisons, House Bill 1708, died in the state House on June 9, despite bipartisan support. The Texas Department of Criminal Justice claims there have been no deaths since 2012 due to extreme heat, but it’s just because they say the person died of a heart attack, without noting that the person’s heart stopped because of the extreme heat. At least that’s the way it looks from the inside. And a study by researchers at Brown, Boston and Harvard universities said 13% of the deaths in Texas prisons during warm months between 2001 and 2019 “may be attributable to extreme heat days.”

According to a 2020 report by the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, the state spends the most in the nation on prisons and jails, with $6.9 billion spent on incarceration, probation and parole of Texas adults every two years. But right now, across 70% of Texas’ prison system, people are just praying to survive another day. Some, like Hagerty, won’t make it.

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What the thousands of incarcerated Texans need right now is pressure on Gov. Greg Abbott, as well as the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, to immediately invest in short-term relief, including portable air conditioners, more fans, regular and plentiful access to clean cold water with ice and cooling stations for everyone. I even imagine a crowdfund campaign for portable AC units, something the governor couldn’t turn down.

For those fighting against injustices in Texas and beyond, please turn your attention to those of us baking inside Texas prisons. We need campaigns, support letters and questions on why Texas legislators keep denying us life-saving measures to stay cool as the planet continues to warm. This isn’t just a fight for us incarcerated. I look around me, inside this blistering unlivable solitary confinement building, part of a much larger system that harms people and the planet. Eventually, we’ll all get burned.

Kwaneta Harris is incarcerated at the Lane Murray Unit in Gatesville. She wrote this column for The Dallas Morning News.

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