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October 11, 2017

"'Cooking Them to Death': The Lethal Toll of Hot Prisons"

The title of this post is the headline of this remarkable new Marshall Project reporting discussing the modern practical problems one finds at the intersection of climate change and modern incarceration practices. The reporting includes this 20-minute documentary put together by the Weather Channel, the Marshall Project and Divided Films. And here is a bit of the written piece:

Most Americans have felt the effects of an increasingly hotter planet. In recent decades, changes in climate have brought higher average temperatures and longer heat waves. But few are as vulnerable to weather trends as incarcerated people, a point underscored in August when thousands were evacuated from Texas prisons ahead of Hurricane Harvey. While some state prison systems — plus federal prisons and military detention facilities, including Guantanamo Bay — keep temperatures within a liveable range, many do not, according to a 2015 Columbia Law School report. Prisoners often live without air-conditioning in areas where temperatures exceed 100 degrees for days at a time and the heat index, which records how hot it feels with humidity, has hit 150 degrees.

The human body is built to cool itself by sweating and dilating blood vessels, but those self-cooling mechanisms can break down. “When the humidity is really high, the sweat can’t evaporate,” said Susi Vassallo, M.D., a New York University professor in emergency medicine who studies thermoregulation. “It just rolls off your body, without cooling it.” Heat stroke victims may become delirious and start seizing and convulsing. “The cells of the body start to cook and fall apart,” said Vassallo, who has testified against prison agencies in lawsuits over heat conditions.

Although there are no national figures on how many prisoners die of heat illness, horror stories emerge every summer: inmates screaming “Help us!” out of the windows of a St. Louis jail; New Hampshire men flooding their scorching cells to cool them down; Arizona prisoners whose shoes melt in the sun.  A growing segment of the incarcerated population is especially heat-sensitive. Jails and prisons house an increasing number of people with mental illness; as many as one in five Texas prisoners are prescribed psychotropic medications, which make the body more vulnerable to heat. A similar number receive blood pressure drugs, which can cause the same problem. And the rise of longer sentences in the 1980s and 90s has produced a surge of older prisoners, who are particularly susceptible to heat illnesses.

There is a way to prevent heat stroke in prison, of course: cooling the facilities during the hottest months. But in most states, there’s little political will to do so.  On its corrections department website, Florida lists the availability of air-conditioning as one of many “misconceptions” about its prison system, along with cable television. “We couldn’t afford to do it if we wanted to,” State Sen. John Whitmire, who chairs the Texas Senate’s criminal justice committee, told an interviewer in 2011 about air-conditioning in prisons. “But number one we just don’t want to.”  Whitmire, a Democrat, did not respond to a request for comment.

Among roughly 150,000 people in Texas prisons, about four in five have no access to air-conditioning in their cells. “The retort was always that if our soldiers in Iraq could manage in un-air conditioned tents, that was good enough for prisoners,” recalls Michele Deitch, former general counsel for the state senate’s criminal justice committee. (The military now provides air-conditioning in many tents in Iraq and Afghanistan.)  But unlike soldiers, prisoners have limited ability to adapt to heat; they can’t always catch a breeze outside or access cool water.

Unable to sway policymakers or corrections officials, inmates and their families are taking their complaints to the courtroom. In the past several years, courts in Arizona, Mississippi, and Wisconsin have sided with prisoners suing officials over extreme heat. In 2012, a federal judge ordered the Louisiana State Penitentiary to lower temperatures on death row to 88 degrees; at times, the heat index had reached 109.

But Texas is the center of the legal battle.  More than 20 state prisoners have died from the heat since 1998. It’s unknown how many more succumbed to heart attacks and other ailments in which heat was a contributing factor.  The Texas Department of Criminal Justice is facing numerous wrongful death lawsuits, one of them mounted by Robert Allen Webb’s family, along with a class action suit to force cooler conditions at the Wallace Pack Unit in Navasota, about 70 miles northwest of Houston.

October 11, 2017 at 10:46 AM | Permalink


Good cause for Bernie Sanders. In the richest country in the world, air conditioning is not a privilege. It is a right.

Texas has 150,000 prisoners. One dies from heat effect each year.

The rate of death from heat in the population is 1 in 25000 each year.

Being in a Texas prison drops your risk of death from the heat by 80% or more. Texas prisons are 6 times safer than the street, and drastically prevent heat related deaths. This protective effect is likely from supervision, and from rapid medical responses to heat related symptoms.

During heat emergencies, Texas prisons should be open to the public facing heat related morality risk. In the richest country in the world, getting into Texas prisons should not be a privilege, but a right.

Posted by: David Behar | Oct 11, 2017 12:32:00 PM

What keeps them from rioting over this?

Posted by: william r. delzell | Oct 11, 2017 6:57:59 PM


The fact that things can get worse.

Posted by: Soronel Haetir | Oct 12, 2017 11:40:31 AM

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