State’s prisons at crisis point with temperatures regularly above 115F threatening physical and mental health of inmates
In Texas, animal shelters are obliged by law to ensure that their ambient temperature does not rise above 85F (29C) for more than two hours, a measure designed to protect dogs and cats from extreme heat and provide for their “health and wellbeing”.
If only humans were so lucky.
Across the state, in prisons that have no cooling systems, up to 100,000 incarcerated people are baking in concrete and metal cells that act as heat traps. Inside temperatures are estimated to rise regularly above 115F (46C), and have even been recorded to reach as high as 149F, pushing individuals to the point of mental or physical breakdown, or even death.
Raymond Gonzalez, 48, described daily life inside Ferguson, one of the oldest prisons, which also has no cooling. He called his cell an “oven” and said he was allowed out of it only twice a week for an hour at a time.
The hot sun beams into his cell all day, he said, and when he or his fellow inmates try to block its rays by covering part of the front of their cells, they are issued disciplinary tickets for obstructing the guards’ view. “To try and remain cool I have to walk around in only my boxer underwear, pouring sink water all over my head and body.”
At night he soaks a bedsheet in water, places it on the concrete floor which he also wets, and lies on it. That’s the only way he can sleep.
The impact of heat stress is evident in his and others’ behaviour. “I get angry and frustrated way too often and too easy,” he wrote in an email to the Guardian. “The mental and physical fatigue is driving me crazy. Sadly, you see inmates losing it and fighting their cellmates out of agitation caused by these conditions.”
That jars with academic and other studies, as well as with the experiences of inmates and prison staff. Last year a team led by Brown University analysed the more than 2,000 deaths that were recorded in uncooled Texas prisons between 2001 and 2019 and concluded that 13% – some 271 deaths – might be attributable to extreme heat.
In the current heatwave, the Texas Tribune reported that at least nine inmates had died since mid-June in prisons without air conditioning. The cause of death was noted as heart attack or cardiac arrest or indeterminate, but in each case outside temperatures soared above 100F on the date of death and were almost certain to have been much higher inside the cells.
“We take numerous precautions to lessen the effects of hot temperatures for those incarcerated,” a TDCJ spokeswoman said. She said that everyone had access to ice and water, fans are strategically placed to move air around, and the number of cooled beds available has been increased.
But the department’s efforts, including $85m that has been earmarked largely for maintenance of those cooling systems that do exist, appears not to have reached many inmates sweltering in their cells. Jose Guadalupe Lucio, 45, wrote to the Guardian from Ferguson prison that in just the past week his row had called “man down” three times, after inmates collapsed from heat exhaustion.