A deadly combination: Extreme heat and U.S. prisons

A deadly combination: Extreme heat and U.S. prisons

By Gracie Pearsall

In mid-July, a United States federal judge sided with a group of Texas inmates who sued the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) over summer heat conditions at the Wallace Pack Unit near Houston. The groundbreaking decision deemed that exposure to extreme heat was cruel and unusual punishment. The decision also referenced the impact of climate change. This ruling has brought attention to a demographic often excluded from the climate change narrative: Prisoners. Despite the correctional sector’s distinct risks to climate change, officials have taken very little action to adapt their systems and facilities. Climate change is causing average temperatures to rise and making heatwaves more intense, leaving prisoners highly at risk to the deadly effects of extreme heat, especially in the Southern United States.

Dangerous and deadly heat

While extreme heat is a pervasive phenomenon that will affect every American, prisoners are particularly vulnerable. Heat-risk multipliers, such as old age, poor mental or physical health, and use of medications are very common in prisons. These factors limit the body’s ability to acclimate to heat, which often leads to heat cramps, dehydration, and heat stroke. When these factors combine with the institutionalized negligence that permeates through the correction sector, the outcome is often deadly. Since 1998, 23 prisoners in Texas prisons have died from heat-related illnesses, many of whom had pre-existing conditions.

Prisoners have no reprieve from the heat. Officials often house them in close-quarter facilities that are overcrowded. Since the human body generates heat and humidity, the number of bodies in a prison directly influences the thermal environment. Excessive body heat combines with ambient heat to create an unbearably hot environment. Prisoners sometimes endure weeks of temperatures close to and over 40 °C (104 °F), and these heat spells will only get longer as climate change intensifies and extends heatwaves.

Existing regulations and practices fail to keep Texas prisons cool enough. The prisons are constructed from brick, metal, and glass, which absorb heat. Seventy percent of Texas prisons do not have air-conditioning, and temperatures can reach up to 43 °C (109 °F). Moreover, many prisons lack adequate ventilation, making the hot air humid and stagnant. The high humidity prevents sweat from evaporating, greatly increasing the risk of heatstroke. Fans offer no relief because once temperatures surpass 32 degrees Celsius (90 °F), fans only circulate, rather than cool the air.

To add to the temperature problem, officials are denying prisoners the appropriate amount of water. At the Price Daniel Unit near Dallas, inmates only receive a 240ml cup of water every four hours. This is two times lower than the amount that the National Academy of Medicine recommended. Inmates can go weeks without a cool drink, and ice is so limited that prisoners will buy ice from each other.

A lethal mix of all these problems caused the death of a prisoner, Larry McCollum.  McCollum  was transferred to a facility with no air conditioning in July, and assigned a cell with no fan and a non-opening window. Although inmates were supposed to receive regular refills of ice water, McCollum did not own a cup because prison policy forbade him from purchases at the commissary until after 30 days. However, after a week, McCollum was found dead in his bunk. He suffered a heat-stroke in the middle of the night after the heat index (apparent temperature) reached 65 degrees Celsius (150 °F).

Adaptating the correctional sector

The Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, the only federal standard for prisons, prohibits cruel and unusual punishment and guarantees humane conditions for prisoners. It was under this amendment that the federal judge issued an injunction ordering TDCJ to reduce temperatures to 31 °C (88 °F) where heat-sensitive residents reside, and give inmates regular access to air-conditioned areas.

Although the court did not mandate any specific methods for heat reduction, plenty of options exist. The primary long-term solution should be reducing the prison population. Efforts to move away from mass incarceration, to more effective strategies for reducing crime, pair perfectly with the correction sector’s need to adapt to climate change and provide better conditions for inmates. A smaller inmate population would mean less body heat, and more funds to allocate to heat-reduction and adaptation measures. Freeing up the budget would hopefully allow the TDJC to phase out heat-sensitive prisons, and ensure that new facilities include climate-resiliency measurers.

The installation of air-conditioning in prisons seems an obvious short-term solution. However, air conditioning is often a point of contention between officials. Some officials view air-conditioning as a luxury that criminals do not deserve, and have fought against inmate advocacy groups. Others believe that installation costs and use of air-conditioning is too high. Because of this bureaucratic gridlock, Texas prisons will most likely not expand air-conditioning to the rest of the inmates.

Luckily, other options exist. Retrofitting facilities with passive cooling measurers is effective, easy to implement, and most importantly, inexpensive. For example, installing awnings over windows could reduce inside temperatures by 65% on south-facing windows, and by 77% on west-facing windows. Reflective roofs could greatly reduce the indoor heat index by reflecting solar radiation. Installing a reflective roof is as easy as painting it white.

Unfortunately, this issue is not isolated to Texas. Last week a video surfaced of Louisiana prisoners screaming for relief from the heat. Extreme heat could become a sector-wide problem, as previously immune facilities become hotter. The case of extreme heat in prisons exposes how climate change will exacerbate certain social justice issues, and how successful adaptation will save lives.

Cover photo by JQPubliq/Flickr (CC BY 2.0): Inmates at the Brooklyn House of Detention playing basketball at sunset.

About the Author

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.