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A long, hot, dangerous summer for Texas prisoners

Texas sees prisoner deaths spike as congressman calls for investigation of 'cruel and unusual' punishments.

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Texas Congressman Greg Casar doesn’t mince words about Texas prisons lacking air conditioning.

“Being in 115-degree prison is the definition of cruel and unusual punishment,” he said, pointing to a Texas A&M University study on heat in Texas prisons.

Casar is one of 14 Democrats on the House Oversight Committee petitioning to investigate states like Texas. The letter they penned pointed to Texas’ repeated failure to expand air conditioning in its prisons.

Republican senators stripped $545 million in funding to dramatically expand AC throughout its system, instead authorizing $85 million.

“We are continuously committed to making certain that we have all our [prisons] eventually air conditioned,” said Faith Johnson, a commissioner for the Texas Board of Criminal Justice, which oversees the department last month.

News Congressional Dems urge action on scorching Texas prisons Paul Flahive

But on what timeline?

Texas prison officials say by the end of next year they’ll add 11,000 air conditioned beds, bringing the number to around 53,000.

Across its 103 prisons, the state has a capacity to hold nearly 150,000 inmates, so the current plan leaves almost 100,000 without relief from the sweltering Texas heat.

The state has been accused of slow-walking progress — using bandaids.

It recently installed temporary AC across five prisons, increasing the number of cooled beds by 1,500.

In six years, the state will have raised the number of cooled beds by approximately 20,000. At that rate, it will be 30 years before the state fully air conditions its facilities.

“They've been dragging their feet on this for years. And now that it's getting so darn hot. I think the public sees just how inhumane this is," he said.

It's potentially deadly as well. Texas prisons have seen the mortality rate jump. In July, more than 20 extra deaths per 100,000 inmates were recorded compared to 2018-2019.

“It seems pretty abundantly clear to me that the mortality rates in 2023 are comparable to what we see in 2021 and 2022, if not worse,” said David Pyrooz, a sociology professor and prison researcher at the University of Colorado Boulder, comparing this year's deaths to the worst months of the pandemic.

”It deviates strongly from what we would think of as business as usual,” he continued.

The state provided no explanation or comment on the spike in deaths and declined to give an interview. In an email, Texas prison officials said only that the state hasn’t had an inmate death due to heat-related issues in more than a decade.

“I think, the idea that there have been no heat related deaths, since 2012, is just false,” said Julie Skarha, a research associate at Brown University’s School of Public Health.

She wrote her doctoral dissertation on the topic. Her findings were published last November in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Her study attributed 271 deaths in Texas prisons between 2001-2019 — or about 14 every summer — likely due to heat, heat-related illnesses and a lack of air conditioning. That prison death rate is 30 times the national average.

The Texas Department of Criminal Justice disputed the study’s findings, saying it didn’t consider age and listed cause of death. Skarha says she used standard statistical models in her peer-reviewed study.

Criminal Justice Texas claims spike in prison deaths isn’t heat-related. Study says that can’t be true. Paul Flahive

Meanwhile, heat in Texas prisons is increasingly unbearable — regularly reaching over 95 or 100 degrees for many hours a day, according to state data.

That data leaves out a critical measure: humidity.

“When we talk about the impact of weather or temperatures on the human body, we talked about temperature, we talked about humidity,” said W. Larry Kenney, a professor of physiology at the Penn State College of Health and Human Development.

If humidity is high, the heat index — the measure of what heat feels like to humans — rises.

Humidity is especially high along the Texas coast. TDCJ has around 10 facilities abutting the coastal climate and most of the state sits in moist, hot climate zones.

Extreme heat raises concern about the health of prison inmates, particularly in Texas Paul Flahive

If humidity is high it also makes it unlikely that sweat will evaporate and cool the skin.

“Sometimes I [would] wake up in the middle of the night where 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,” said Don Aldaco, who served more than a decade in TDCJ before being paroled in April.

These scenarios, where the body wastes water, energy and it doesn’t cool us down, become dangerous.

“The heart rate increases, blood pressure may decrease,” Kenney said.

The heart strains then may give out. In August, 19 people in Texas prisons either had cardiac events or were discovered unresponsive for unknown reasons. That brings the number over 50 of people who suffered similar fates this summer.

“I'm 47. I have a hard time breathing, my chest, I wake up numb, sometimes, you know, I put in for medical about this. Just trying to keep out of people's way. Just lay there and sweat,” said Joseph Garza, who is serving three years for drug possession inside the Fabian Dominguez State Jail outside San Antonio.

Garza said he’s lucky — they have regular access to showers and his bunk in the 60-man dormitory is near the fan. But it’s still too hot.

“I really feel, to be honest, like we're jerky. We're slowly being cooked. And it’s frustrating,” he said.

Criminal Justice Texas charges prisoners 50% more for water as heat wave continues Paul Flahive

Prisoners and their families throughout the system are frustrated for another reason — the price of water bottles skyrocketed 50% in late June.

“Why make it more expensive during a heat wave? During natural disasters such as hurricanes, this would be illegal. What's the difference?” asked Kwaneta Harris, an inmate at TDCJ, in an email to TPR.

As the state nears autumn, temperatures remain high across Texas. Advocates say federal intervention may be the only thing to change prison conditions.

Copyright 2023 Texas Public Radio. To see more, visit Texas Public Radio.

Paul Flahive is the technology and entrepreneurship reporter for Texas Public Radio. He has worked in public media across the country, from Iowa City and Chicago to Anchorage and San Antonio.