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‘Air Conditioning is a Human Right.’ Heat-Related Prison Deaths Are Rising Due to Climate Change

8 minute read
Updated: | Originally published:

The best time to visit a prisoner in Texas is early morning, when the crowds are thin and the lines are short. During the summer months Amite Dominick aims for mid-afternoon, not because it’s better for her schedule—it’s not—but because she knows that if she comes during the hottest part of the day her ex-husband will at least get a few hours of respite in the air-conditioned visiting area when he needs it most.

Neither his cell nor the common areas of the prison where he has spent the past eight years are air-conditioned, and temperatures inside can reach triple digits in the summer. On really hot days, says Dominick, her ex-husband’s white prison jumpsuit is already soaked with sweat by the time he comes out to see her. “When I hug him, he’s just dripping wet.”

It’s not just uncomfortable, it can be deadly. According to research by Julie Skarha, an environmental epidemiologist at Brown University’s School of Public Health, 271 prisoners died of heat-related causes in un-air-conditioned Texas prisons between 2001 and 2019. Many more suffer heat exhaustion each year, reporting dizziness, nausea, heat rashes, and muscle cramps. “With climate change each summer is going to be worse than the last. If nothing is done about this, people will continue to die,” says Dominick, founder of Texas Prisons Community Advocates, an organization that campaigns for prisoner welfare. “We have people going in for unpaid parking tickets and [drug] possession charges, and they end up getting a death sentence because of the heat.”

Seventy percent of Texas prisons lack air conditioning in cells and common areas, and the rest of the United States is not much better, according to Skarha. Yet prisons house a growing number of people with medical conditions and mental-health concerns that make them particularly susceptible to heat-related illnesses. This leaves a vulnerable population even more at risk.

Read more: Heat Waves Can Be Deadly for Those With Mental Health Issues

“When it is hot, there is a lot we can do to cool down, whether it’s turning on the AC, drinking water, taking a cold shower, changing to lighter clothes, or going to a cooler place—a public library or mall,” says Skarha. “That’s not possible when you are on the inside. Water isn’t available 24/7. Showers are limited. There is a uniform. If you want a fan, you have to buy it from the prison commissary, and for some people that’s not affordable.” In a March paper published in the medical journal PLOS One, Skarha analyzed summertime mortality rates from U.S. state and private prisons over the past two decades and found that the death rate rose by 5.2% for every 10°F increase in temperature above historical averages—some 635 prison deaths due to high heat since 2001.

While there is no national database tracking air conditioning across all U.S. prisons, Skarha was able to compare mortality data for Texas prisons with and without air conditioning. She found no association between an extreme heat day and increased risk of death in prisons with AC, she says. But prisons that didn’t cool their cells and common areas saw a 13% increase in heat-related deaths compared to the rest of the population. That’s a pretty strong indication that air conditioning plays an important role in prisoner health on hot days, she says. “It’s not just prisoners who are miserable. The correctional officers, the administration, the wardens and the medical staff are miserable too. Tensions are high. Violence goes up. Suicides increase.”

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is predicting a hotter-than-average summer for broad swaths of the United States; over the next five years temperatures are likely to soar to record highs due to a combination of human-caused global warming and the El Niño weather pattern. Unless aggressive action is taken to limit fossil fuel emissions, the number of days per year above 105°F will quadruple by mid-century, according to an analysis by the Union of Concerned Scientists. By the end of the century thousands of U.S. prisons will know the kind of heat Texas has today. Without air conditioning, that risks turning temporary incarceration into a death sentence.

Read more: What It’s Like Living in One of the Hottest Cities on Earth—Where It May Soon Be Uninhabitable

Unlike prisons in the Northeast, Texas does have protocols in place for heatwaves. Fans should be brought in. Inmates are supposed to be provided with extra water and ice and offered the opportunity for cold showers. But in Dominick’s experience, the protocols are unevenly applied.

“First of all, half the showers don’t work, or the temperatures are set hot. If you are talking about a whole dorm, that’s 50 plus individuals in the showers at a time. If there are not enough officers to watch over them, that’s not getting done.” The water coolers only get replenished every six hours, she says— “so what happens when you are the last person in line?” And when the temperature surpasses 95°F, fans aren’t enough, she says, quoting heat-illness prevention guidelines published by the Centers for Disease Control. In fact, she notes, the CDC’s principal recommendation for high heat is air conditioning: “[It] is the strongest protective factor … Exposure to air conditioning for even a few hours a day will reduce the risk for heat related illness.”

In the Texas prison where Dominick’s ex-husband resides, inmates have turned to extreme measures to keep cool on hot days. (Dominick requested not to use her ex-husband’s name to protect his identity). Some force their cell toilets to overflow, so that they can take respite by lying on the wet concrete floors. Others jerry-rig swamp coolers by draping wet t-shirts over fans that they buy from the commissary.

Both actions can result in a demerit that impacts the possibility of parole, but on a hot day, “they are desperate,” says Dominick, whose organization has become a kind of clearing house for prisoner complaints about excessively hot conditions. “I struggle with the heat so bad,” one incarcerated woman wrote, “I can’t eat… I can’t gain weight… I get dizzy and headaches… I am weak. I have diarrhea too with leg cramps at night. I have even passed out a few times. I drink plenty of water. They do not allow respite… Please… help me with any information to get a unit transfer.” Another woman woke up at 3 a.m. from a dream of rain on her face, only to find that it was her cellmate’s sweat dripping down from the top bunk. “I did 5 summers in there and it’s inhumane,” wrote a male prisoner. “Your survival mode has to kick in and you end up sleeping on a wet floor with wet clothes with your fan on just to make it. I most definitely have PTSD.”

Read more: How Extreme Heat Impacts Your Brain and Mental Health

In 2021 the Texas House of Representatives passed a bill to require that prisons maintain temperatures between 65°F and 86°F—the same standard used for county jails—on the condition that lawmakers also come up with the funds to cover costs. They didn’t, and the bill died in committee. Due, in part, to Dominick’s fierce lobbying, the Texas House passed a similar bill on April 26, but once again legislators have failed to find funding—coming in at $1.1 billion, the cost is most certainly overinflated, says Dominick—and this bill is likely to wither in the State Senate this week. “Texas is a very punitive state,” says Dominick. “There’s just an overall lack of compassion.”

But as temperatures keep rising, the costs of medical care for heat-stressed prisoners, wrongful death lawsuits and staffing for ever-hotter prisons will too, says Skarha. “At this point the state has probably spent more money fighting these AC bills than it would actually cost to install AC in these facilities.” Part of the problem is that legislators still see air conditioning as a luxury, says Skarha. No one disputes the need for TV in prison, which is arguably less important for human health than air-conditioning. “In the context of climate change, AC is not a luxury. It’s a human right.”


Correction, May 23

The original version of this story misstated Amite Dominick’s professional background. She holds a Ph.D. in psychology, but is not a psychologist.

This story was supported by the Pulitzer Center.

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