Heat wave: Texas prison officials are murderers

Mother of Jon Anthony Southards holds pictures of her son who died in 121 heat, at a press conference at Texas Capitol, July 18, 2023.

Houston

Prisoners are dying almost every day in Texas due to the extreme heat. They are dying in cells, dorms, fields, factories and kitchens. The Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) has a policy, AD10.64, which says people are allowed to go to “respite” areas if being affected by the heat. In reality, their policy is nothing but a cruel and deadly lie. 

Since a heat wave gripped Texas this June, at least nine prisoners, including two men in their 30s, died of heart attacks or unknown causes in prisons lacking air conditioning, according to the Texas Tribune. (June 28) 

Major daily newspapers around the state are editorializing about the heat in prisons. Activists, families and friends of incarcerated people are organizing against these horrific deaths. This issue is becoming as hot as the prison cells. 

The Texas prison system incarcerates 118,277 people in 98 facilities located throughout the state. According to research by Julie Skarha, an environmental epidemiologist from Brown University’s School of Public Health, 271 prisoners died of heat-related causes in non air-conditioned Texas prisons between 2001 and 2019. (Texas Prisons Community Advocates Facebook) 

Many more suffer from heat exhaustion each year, reporting dizziness, nausea, heat rashes, and muscle cramps. Yet it’s been 11 years since Texas has classified a death as heat-related.

TDCJ Communications Director Amanda Hernandez claimed that Texas prisons have had no heat deaths since 2012. She told the New York Times: “Much like those Texans who do not have access to air-conditioning in their homes, inmates are able to keep themselves cool by other means: ice water, fans,” and “access to air-conditioned respite areas when needed.” (June 29)

Sounds nice, but the reality is that this is not happening.

Heat exhaustion, heatstroke, heart attacks and passing out occur every minute that you are reading this, as reported on the Facebook page of TDCJ Polunsky [Prison] Wives,  Girlfriends, Friends and Family. There, a prisoner’s spouse wrote: “I’m soooo sick of this damn prison since my husband has been here, always on lockdown or it’s some bs with this prison. My husband had a seizure because of the heat and his insulin being low. The damn officers did f–king nothing. This is the second time this has happened. It’s too damn hot.”

Savannah Eldridge speaking at the press conference at the Capitol in Austin, July 18, 2023.

Another woman wrote on that page: “I don’t know what else to do anymore. My husband said they still ain’t passing out water. He has been asking to go to medical and they have ignored him. He passed out and busted his head open on the concrete floor. His celly has been tending to him. His celly,  not a doctor or nurse.”

Families are having to use GoFundMe to raise money to bury loved ones. On a page entitled, “Laying T.J. to Rest,” is the statement:  “My name is Kristie Williams. On June 23, our family received a phone call that my brother T.J. had passed away. His death was a result of him being made to be outside working in the field in Huntsville with little to no water, with a state of emergency heat advisory in place. He had made it known the day prior that he was extremely exhausted and so thirsty and wasn’t being given water. The next morning, he was still made to go back out in the extreme temperatures resulting in him collapsing and not being able to be resuscitated.”  

Workers World spoke with a prisoner at the Polunsky Unit who said that he hadn’t been allowed to shower in over a week. “They say we get three showers a day but that is a lie,” he said.  

Young and old dying from the heat

A post on the Texas Prisons Community Advocates’ Facebook page from the sister of a prisoner at the TDCJ Lucile Plane State Jail read: “So many women are dying here from heat. A 23-year-old died yesterday. She asked the guard for ‘respite’ to go sit in a room with AC for a few minutes. They denied her. Then she tried getting a cold shower but started throwing up and died.

“My dorm waited seven hours for water yesterday. We hardly ever have drinking water. Two women died and laid in their bunks for four hours before medical picked them up. There are over 3,000 women here and not just old women are dying. Young healthy women are also dying from the heat.”

On the same page a man’s family posted his remarks: “It is so hot that I am covered with a heat rash from my head to my toes. They have fans on my wing but only one works.”

A mother posted on the TPCA page about her daughter: “She has been there seven years. She has nine months to go. She’s sweating profusely all the time. Can’t sleep. She works in the kitchen. So you know, it’s like 120, 130 degrees in there and people or fainting people are seizing and falling on the floor. Heat-related seizures are very common in the summer months in prison. And I don’t mean common like one a day. I mean common like three or four a day.”

This heat index chart shows the likelihood of heat disorders based on combined temperature and humidity.

There were four bills in the Texas legislature this spring that would have provided money for air conditioning. Two passed in the House, but Texas senators killed a bill that would have established a prison temperature standard of 65-to-85 degrees, with funding of $545 million for the first two parts of a four-phase air-conditioning installation plan. Despite a $32.7 billion budget surplus this year, the legislature allocated no funds specifically for prison air conditioning.

A press conference and demonstration at the Capitol in Austin took place July 18. A mock cell will be brought to the Capitol’s south steps where people can sit in the 105-degree predicted heat for that day, in the sun, and get a taste of what is the reality for prisoners under a “heat dome.”

 

Gloria Rubac

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Gloria Rubac
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