America is experiencing a dire mass incarceration crisis and an equally dire environmental crisis. When the two merge, it creates unbearable conditions for thousands of vulnerable individuals.
According to a July 2022 study by Texas A&M’s Hazard Reduction and Recovery Center, only 20% of Texas prison units have air conditioning. And, as many areas of the Southern U.S. experience record-breaking heat, the remaining 80% of uncooled cells can reach temperatures as high as 110°F. The study also found evidence of at least one unit rising as high as 149°F.
“The lack of air-conditioning in prisons, especially housing areas, has been argued to be in violation of human rights, the U.S. Constitution’s Eighth Amendment protection against cruel and unusual punishment, the 14th Amendment guaranteeing equal protection to citizens, as well as the Americans with Disabilities Act and Rehabilitation Act,” the study’s authors wrote.
The effects of record-breaking heat on prison populations isn’t exclusive to Texas, either. Thirteen other states do not have universal air conditioning in their prisons, per a 2019 Prison Policy Initiative report: Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas, and Virginia.
Due to a regular increase in unbearable temperatures year over year, many incarcerated folks are at greater risk of life-threatening illnesses such as heat strokes and injury to their kidneys, heart, brain, and liver. Speaking to VICE News, Jamila Johnson, a Louisiana-based prison reform activist, expressed concern that the inmates living through these adverse heat conditions often also must complete “grueling” mandatory labor on a daily basis.
“Extreme heat disproportionately impacts incarcerated people with medical or mental health vulnerabilities. Such vulnerabilities are overrepresented in prison systems across the U.S. and especially in Texas. Increasing annual temperatures and the increase of days over 100 degrees in Texas will continue to exacerbate the degradation of health for both incarcerated people and staff,” the Texas A&M study reads.
Researchers estimate that outfitting all Texas prison facilities with proper air conditioning would cost approx $1 billion, with another $140 million required annually for “utilities and maintenance.”
“People don’t understand how much of an issue this is, and it has enormous spillover effects for our prison systems and our communities,” said Texas A&M research assistant J. Carlee Purdum, when presenting the study’s findings to state lawmakers last month. “We’re not talking about a luxury – it’s a necessity. Especially in months like this when we’re going through these extreme heat waves. We’re talking about a human right – the right to live and the right to be in a safe place.”