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New study details how extreme heat is affecting Texas prisons

Austin Price for KUT
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The research from Texas A&M University shows how many incarcerated individuals and staff are suffering from heat-related illnesses and death.

Texas is one of 13 states in the U.S. that does not have universal air conditioning for its state prisons.

Temperatures inside units have been shown to regularly reach 110 degrees, and at least one unit has topped 149 degrees. This extreme heat, along with a lack of adequate precautions, is causing many incarcerated people and prison staff great harm, according to a new reportreleased by the Texas A&M Hazard Reduction and Recovery Center.

J. Carlee Purdum, the lead author of the report and a research assistant professor at Texas A&M, presented her findings to lawmakers last week during testimony before the Texas House Appropriations Committee. She shared more on the report with Texas Standard:

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Texas Standard: Tell us a little bit about your appearance before the Texas House Appropriations Committee. What did you tell lawmakers?

J. Carlee Purdum: So I spoke to lawmakers about the report that we just released, which is about how Texas prisons are dealing with extreme heat and units that do not have air conditioning. Our report really dug into these heat mitigation policies and the many, many challenges that go along with them.

What specifically are prisons without air conditioning trying to do?

So without air conditioning, when you have such extreme heat, heat-related illness and potentially heat-related death are a significant concern. And so what the units try to do is reduce the risk for incarcerated people to have that extreme heat illness. And so what they’re doing is trying to get resources to them like water, additional showers and access to cooled areas in the units. But when you’re dealing with a population of 120,000 people every day, it’s extremely challenging to actually make that happen.

How are those mitigation techniques and strategies worked out?

The challenges are really just dealing with such an enormous population and dealing with a significant lack of staffing. So when you have these extreme temperatures, really all it takes is for the right, medically vulnerable person to not have access to safe water, access to a cooled area in the unit, and they could potentially have a severe heat-related illness and potentially die.

According to this report, just 30% of Texas prisons are fully air-conditioned. What sort of effects are we seeing on inmates and on staff?

What we’re seeing is a degradation of their health over time, and we’re seeing instances of heat-related illness. We’re seeing other illnesses become worse. For example, mental health is an enormous concern in Texas prisons. We see the number of suicide attempts climb in the summer months.

Many say, look, this is a matter of a violation of human rights. What’s being done for those in prison or for prison staff with medical conditions or who report that they’re falling ill because of this heat?

What’s being done is that Texas Department of Criminal Justice tries to identify the most vulnerable and get them into those cooled units. But the reality is, is that there are so many vulnerable people inside the units and working in the units that it’s really impossible at this point in time to get everyone who needs to be in air-conditioned units into them. And also, we know that it doesn’t take being extremely medically vulnerable to experience heat-related illness and potential death.

A lot of people probably think, ‘Wait a minute, we’re in 2022. Texas is known to be hot. The summers are known to be intensely hot.’ Why is it that these facilities don’t have air conditioning when we’re talking about most prisons across the country that are equipped?

Right. Well, I think that what has happened is there were choices that were made to not put air conditioning into the units when they were built. And now, over time, we’re seeing more and more that air conditioning is not a luxury. It is a human right. It is something that is necessary for life. There are advocates that are really drawing attention to it. And I believe research like ours is really illuminating the issue for what is usually an invisible population.

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Cristela Jones