Last summer’s record-breaking heat wave had a grim impact on Texas, playing a role in the deaths of roughly 150 people. Many of them were found in their homes or apartments, but a few were discovered somewhere else — in their prison cells.Less frequently discussed than the effects of heat on prisoners is the effect on staff:
Ten inmates of the state prison system died of heat-related causes last summer in a 26-day period in July and August, a death toll that has alarmed prisoners’ rights advocates who believe that the lack of air-conditioning in most state prisons puts inmates’ lives at risk.
The 10 inmates were housed in areas that lacked air-conditioning, and several had collapsed or lost consciousness while they were in their cells. All of them were found to have died of hyperthermia, a condition that occurs when body temperature rises above 105 degrees, according to autopsy reports and the state’s prison agency.
Other factors contributed to their deaths. All but three of them had hypertension, and some were obese, had heart disease or were taking antipsychotic medications, which can affect the body’s ability to regulate heat.
TDCJ disputes the numbers cited by the Times, claiming "12 inmates had died of heat-related causes since 2007." But if the Times is right that hyperthermia was listed in the autopsies as the cause of death for all ten men cited in the story, that claim seems a bit self serving. At a minimum, it sounds like inmates diagnosed with hypertension, heart disease or taking antipsychotic medications should be prioritized for removal from units without air conditioning. Grits understands it's unreasonable to expect every unit to be air conditioned anytime soon, at least short of a federal court order, even though A/C is mandated for county jails. But at this point, the risk factors that make heat-related death more likely are becoming pretty clear, and it's probable the state needs more air-conditioned units than it's got.At least 17 prison employees or inmates were treated for heat-related illnesses from June 25 through July 6, according to agency documents. Many of them had been indoors at the time they reported feeling ill.At the Darrington Unit near Rosharon on June 25, a 56-year-old corrections officer fainted in a supervisor’s office and was taken to a hospital. Heat exhaustion was diagnosed. At the four-story Coffield Unit near Palestine, where one inmate died of hyperthermia last August, dozens of windows have been broken out — prisoners slip soda cans or bars of soap into socks and throw them at the windows, hoping to increase ventilation.
Regardless, I expect state officials to remain in a state of denial on the subject unless and until a federal court tells them otherwise. We should find out soon whether or not the Texas Civil Right Project will be allowed to take the first such case to trial. When that happens, the rhetorical and political dynamic surrounding the topic could change quite rapidly, particularly if the plaintiffs prevail.