Heat-related prison deaths are on the rise due to climate change

T:The best time to visit an inmate in Texas is early in the morning when the crowds are thin and the lines are short. During the summer months, psychologist Amit Dominik aims to spend the afternoon, not because it’s better for his schedule, it’s not, but because he knows that if he comes during the hottest part of the day, his ex-husband will at least get a few hours. to rest in an air-conditioned area, to visit when he needs it.

Neither his cell nor the common areas of the prison, where he has spent the last eight years, are air-conditioned, and temperatures inside can reach triple digits in the summer. On really hot days, Dominique says, her ex-husband’s white prison overalls are already soaked with sweat when she goes out to see him. “When I hold her, she’s just dripping wet.”

Not only is it inconvenient, it can be deadly. According to research by Julie Skarha, an environmental epidemiologist at Brown University’s School of Public Health, 271 inmates died of heat in unventilated Texas prisons between 2001 and 2019. nausea, heat rash and muscle cramps. “With climate change, every summer is going to be worse than the last. If nothing is done about this, people will continue to die,” said Dominick, of Texas Prison Community Advocates, an organization that campaigns for the welfare of prisoners. “We have people buying unpaid parking tickets and [drug] and they end up being executed because of the heat.”

Seventy percent of Texas prisons lack air conditioning in cells and common areas, and the rest of the United States isn’t much better, according to Scarha. However, prisons house an increasing number of people with medical conditions and mental health problems that make them particularly susceptible to heat-related illnesses. This puts vulnerable populations at greater risk.

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“When it’s hot, there are many things we can do to cool down, whether it’s turning on the air conditioner, drinking water, taking a cold shower, changing into light clothes, or going to a cooler place like a public library or shopping mall,” Scarha says. “That’s not possible when you’re inside. Water is not 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 it is not affordable.” in an article published in a medical journal in March PLoS One:Scarha analyzed the summer death rate from U.S. state and private prisons over the past two decades and found that the death rate rose 5.2% for every 10°F increase in temperature above the historical average, with about 635 prison deaths from extreme heat since 2001. from .

Although there is no national database tracking air conditioning in all US prisons, Scarha was able to compare mortality data from Texas prisons with and without air conditioning. He says he found no link between an extremely hot day and an increased risk of death in prisons with AC. But prisons that did not 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 inmate health on hot days, he says. “It’s not just the prisoners who are miserable. Correctional officers, administration, wardens and medical staff are also miserable. The tension is high. Violence is increasing. Suicides are increasing.”

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is predicting a warmer-than-average summer for large swaths of the United States. Temperatures are likely to reach record highs over the next five years due to a combination of human-caused global warming and the El Niño weather pattern. Unless aggressive steps are taken to limit fossil fuel emissions, the number of days above 105°F per year will triple by mid-century, according to an analysis by the Union of Concerned Scientists. By the end of the century, thousands of US prisons will know how hot Texas is today. Without air conditioning, it risks turning temporary detention into a death sentence.

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Unlike prisons in the Northeast, Texas has protocols for heat waves. Fans must be brought. Prisoners are believed to be offered extra water and ice, as well as cold showers. But in Dominic’s experience, protocols are applied unevenly.

“First of all, half the showers don’t work or the temperature is hot. If you’re talking about an entire dorm, that’s 50 people in the shower at once. If there aren’t enough officers to police them, it doesn’t work.” Water coolers are only refilled every six hours, he says. “So what happens when you’re the last person in line?” And when temperatures exceed 95°F, fans aren’t enough, he says, citing guidelines for preventing heat illness published by the Centers for Disease Control. In fact, he notes, the CDC’s top recommendation for high fever is air conditioning;[It] is the strongest protective factor… Even a few hours a day of exposure to air conditioning will reduce the risk of heat-related illness.”

At the Texas prison where Dominique’s ex-husband lives, inmates resorted to extreme measures to stay cool on hot days. (Dominique asked that her ex-husband’s name not be used to protect his identity.) Some force their cell toilets to flush so they can rest by lying on the wet concrete floor. Others fill swamp coolers by putting wet T-shirts on fans they buy at the commissary.

Both actions can result in a demerit that affects the possibility of parole, but on hot days, “they’re desperate,” said Dominique, whose organization has become a sort of clearing house for complaints from inmates about excessively hot conditions. “I struggle so badly with the heat,” writes a female prisoner, “I can’t eat… I can’t gain weight… I get dizzy and have headaches… I’m weak.” I also have diarrhea at night with leg cramps. I even fainted a few times. I drink a lot of water. They don’t allow postponement… Please… help me with any information to get a unit transfer”. Another woman woke up at 3 a.m. with a dream of rain on her face, only to find it was her roommate’s sweat dripping from the bunk above. “I spent 5 summers there and it’s inhumane,” wrote one male inmate. “Your survival mode has to kick in and you end up sleeping on a wet floor, in wet clothes, with your fan on, just to make it. I definitely have PTSD.”

Read more: How extreme heat affects your brain and mental health

In 2021, the Texas House of Representatives passed a bill requiring prisons to maintain temperatures between 65°F and 86°F, the same standard used for county jails, provided lawmakers also provide funds to cover the costs. : They didn’t, and the bill died in committee. Due to Dominic’s fierce lobbying, the Texas House passed a similar bill on April 26, but once again lawmakers failed to find funding. likely to languish in the state senate this week. “Texas is a very punitive state,” Dominic says. “There’s just a general lack of empathy.”

But as temperatures continue to rise, so will medical costs for heat-stressed inmates, wrongful-death sentences and staffing hotter prisons, Scarha said. “Right now, 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 lawmakers still treat air conditioning as a luxury, says See Skarha. No one disputes the necessity of television in prison, which is arguably less important to human health than air conditioning. “In the context of climate change, AC is not a luxury. It’s a human right.”

This story is supported Pulitzer Center.

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