‘Why didn’t they just kill us?’ Three women talk about life in a Texas prison without AC

The record-breaking heat this summer has brought new attention to conditions in Texas state prisons, most of which operate without air conditioning in prison cells.

Temperatures in cells often stay in the 90s for hours and can reach into the triple digits. But, officials say there is no evidence the heat is killing prisoners, despite a spike in prison deaths that independent analysts attribute to the heat.

To find out what it’s like to live in such conditions, KUT talk to three women incarcerated at the Hobby Unit prison in Marlin, Texas. The sources asked for varying degrees of anonymity to speak freely.

KUT has reached out to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice for comment but has not heard back.

What follows are descriptions, in their own voices, of the heat and other challenges they face. These interviews have been edited for brevity and clarity.

Prisoner 1

I wake up about 6 a.m. Get ready for work. We come back about 11:30 in 12. Right about that time it’s not too hot; it’s just getting barely there. And then we get locked up.

We’re in here during the hottest parts of the day. … There will be times I can’t put my back on the concrete wall because it’s so hot. The toilets we sit on are stainless steel. When we sit on those, sometimes the back of the toilet will burn your back because it’s so hot.

I’m a bigger woman. It’s one of those things where I’m terrified that if I am having a heat stroke, without the wellness checks that they don’t have the law [officers] to do. We could be sitting in one of these cells and overheat and die. That’s the reality of it.

A lot of people sleep on the floor and especially at night. Put a fan right up there, sort of blow the cool air in and sleep on the floor. A lot of people will wet their clothes repeatedly throughout the night.

Our bosses in our laundry are amazing, I’m not even gonna lie. They make sure that if any of us look like we’re overdoing it, they will [say], “Hey, do you need to go sit down? Do you need to do respite?”

When [corrections officers] say ‘we’re short of staff you’ve got to stay in your cells.’ It’s up to them if they don’t decide they want to run [pass out] water.

If you get an officer that has a heart … they’ll come and they’ll be like, “Hey, you [inmate], you come out, now we’re going to pass out water.”

Even when we’re passing out water, we’re having to funnel the water through the grates [of the cell doors]. What I mean by funnel is, we take our toothpaste and most of us cut the tops off that and use that as a funnel. Or you take a panty liner and you use that to funnel water through the door. Because we don’t have the officers or the means to open the door, to be able to get people water, to be able to [let] people out.

I just want people to remember that, while I made a mistake, I’m still somebody’s daughter and somebody’s sister. I feel like anybody could be sitting where I’m at. I made a choice. I made a decision. It was a bad one. But I’m you, just one decision away.

Remember that we’re humans. I did commit a crime … I’m still being punished. But this is torture. If that’s what they wanted to do … why didn’t they just kill us?

Prisoner 2

This is my third summer without AC. There’s 84 women in the dorms and cell block where I’m at. The cells are all concrete and metal, so that tends to keep the heat trapped in there. Being that we’ve been short-staffed, we’ve been stuck in our cells. It literally feels like I’m baking in a pizza oven.

We try to find different ways to stay cool. I try to put my blanket over my windows to keep the sun out of cell, but it is against the rules. Sometimes we have to get our sheets wet and clip them on to a fan and lay underneath them, or we just take wash offs in our cells with the sink water.

The sink water is brown when it comes out of the faucet. I know that maintenance puts bleach tablets in our water at times to kind of control how it looks. I’m not quite sure what I’m drinking. I can tell you some days are better than others.

One of the biggest issues that I have is officers treating us as though water is a privilege. The officers are supposed to let us out every hour for cold water, but the officers are not doing their job making sure that we get cold water.

In the summer, we’re supposed to be able to say we want a respite shower at any time, and they’re supposed to let us get in a cold shower. You have some officers that actually care, which is slim pickings, and then other officers that don’t care at all. So I’ve gone days without these — the officers offering me a shower or water or respite.

We’re just really trying to survive. It gets to the point where, like, I’ll have headaches from dehydration. I have a problem using the restroom because I’m so dehydrated.

Just the other day, somebody was picked up in a wheelchair because they were having heat stroke symptoms. She looked extremely pale. She was sweating profusely. She couldn’t even get up, put herself in the wheelchair. They had to pick her up. Luckily, she made it through.

But we have to do something about this heat. I mean, dogs in a dog pound have air conditioning.

Prisoner 3

I’m here for potentially the rest of my life. And I have seen some atrocities in my life. But this heat, it just sucks the life out of it, sucks the hope out of it.

I work in the kitchen, so we’re working with open room ovens, boiling pots. It’s very, very hot in there. It drains you. It drains you. You start sweating, you have the chills. You have nausea and vomiting, diarrhea. Headaches.

[To keep cool in the cell] we strip down to our shorts or panties and bra, and we will lay down on the floor. Sometimes we’ll pour water on the floor and lay in the water and then put our fans on it. There are some days where I wholeheartedly believe that has saved lives.

We’ve gotten to the point where we see an officer walk in, and we can tell by who it is, what kind of day we’re going to have, if we’re going to have water, if we’re going to be allowed to take a shower, if we’re going to be allowed out to the dayroom in front of the big fan. It depends on who we have, and that is not how it should be.

This summer’s been awful and the news is scary. With climate change and record-breaking heat every day and heat domes and heat waves. … We sit around here and talk about — “Are we going to be alive in five years?”

That might sound dramatic to people, but it’s our reality. You know, this year’s a couple degrees hotter than last year. Well, it stands to reason that if that trend continues for a few years, eventually we will not be able to sustain life in prison without some sort of action.

We’re supposed to be here rehabilitating so that some of us can go back to society. And it’s very difficult to rehabilitate when you’re hot and you’re angry and you’re thirsty.

I know that a lot of us are here by our own choices. And I understand that prison is necessary and that it’s not meant to be comfortable.

We are not asking for special treatment. We’re not asking to be coddled. We’re not asking for any kind of luxury. We’re just asking for human consideration. We’re asking for basic water and cool air.

Copyright 2023 KUT 90.5. To see more, visit KUT 90.5.


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