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Adrienne Lawrence

Legal analyst, law professor & award-winning author

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Prisoners and guards are suffering in extreme heat

Jul 26, 2023

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Americans across the country are suffering from extreme heat this summer. But there’s a group of people that may be facing even higher temperatures: prisoners. In Texas alone, reports indicate at least nine inmates have died of heart attacks or unknown causes in the prisons without air conditioning. So far, the state hasn’t classified any of the deaths as heat-related. But a study by researchers at Brown, Boston and Harvard Universities found that 13%, or 271, of the deaths that happened in Texas prisons without universal air conditioning between 2001 and 2019 “may be attributable to extreme heat days.”

Straight Arrow News contributor Adrienne Lawrence believes Texas hasn’t labeled any of these deaths as heat-related because it is afraid of a barrage of wrongful death lawsuits.

Many prisons across the hot south, from Alabama to Mississippi, lack cooling systems. And these human beings are boiling; not to mention that it’s not just adults that are suffering, it’s kids, too. In Louisiana, where the heat indexes topped 133 degrees this month, children incarcerated at the Angola prison say that they are locked in windowless cells with no air conditioning for nearly 24 hours a day. These conditions were known to administrators. And these temperatures, they were predicted by scientists, and this treatment is beyond inhumane. 

Whether they’re adults or children, inmates belong to the state. The state is charged with caring for them until they finish paying their debts to society. No matter the offense that they committed, our society is not supposed to be the one backing torture. To house individuals in temperatures north of 130 degrees is just that — torture. The stories of inmates drenching their bedding in their latrine so that they can cool themselves, collapsing from excess heat, going into cardiac arrest and so much more — it should be jarring, if not disturbing to all. 

Yet somehow we have absolutely no problem whatsoever allowing individuals to suffer simply because they have violated our rules. That’s not how humanity is supposed to work as far as I’m concerned. And it’s also not how democracy is supposed to work. We’ve committed to protecting individuals from cruel and unusual punishment. Since at least the Attica uprising of 1971, our courts have built a body of case law that commands our carceral system treat individuals with dignity and keep them in good health. 

 

We now know that last month was The Earth’s hottest June on record, and based on the first three weeks of July this month is likely to follow in suit. 

 

Now, while many people are doing all that they can to stay cool, what about those who have absolutely no control over their environments? Specifically, what about those who are incarcerated here in the United States. Amidst these deadly heat waves, state and local governments, well, they all have obligations to ensure that inmates are not suffering. But many of these governmental bodies are failing, and they must be held accountable because forcing the incarcerated to live in oppressively hot temperatures is cruel and unusual punishment, which you know, last time I checked violates that whole Eighth Amendment business. 

 

And it also seems that the Lone Star State happens to be a big offender here. Since these heat waves began rolling in this year, strings of three digit temperature days in Texas have contributed to the deaths of at least nine inmates. And they’re held in these facilities where the heat is amplified, and also uncooled, reaching 110 degrees or higher. Now these prisons have no air conditioning whatsoever. And although all eyes have been on Texas lately, well it’s not just them. 

 

Many prisons across the hot south, from Alabama to Mississippi, lack cooling systems. And these human beings are boiling. Not to mention that it’s not just adults that are suffering, it’s kids too. In Louisiana, where the heat indexes topped 133 degrees this month, children incarcerated at the Angola prison say that they are locked in windowless cells with no air conditioning for nearly 24 hours a day. These conditions were known to administrators. And these temperatures, they were predicted by scientists, and this treatment is beyond inhumane. 

 

Whether they’re adults or children, inmates belong to the state. The state is charged with caring for them until they finish paying their debts to society. No matter the offense that they committed, our society is not supposed to be the one backing torture. To house individuals in temperatures north of 130 degrees is just that — torture. The stories of inmates drenching their bedding in their latrine so that they can cool themselves, collapsing from excess heat, going into cardiac arrest and so much more — it should be jarring, if not disturbing to all. 

 

Yet somehow we have absolutely no problem whatsoever allowing individuals to suffer simply because they have violated our rules. That’s not how humanity is supposed to work as far as I’m concerned. And it’s also not how democracy is supposed to work. We’ve committed to protecting individuals from cruel and unusual punishment. Since at least the Attica uprising of 1971, our courts have built a body of case law that commands our carceral system treat individuals with dignity and keep them in good health. 

 

We are failing in that regard. And it is disgusting how we are consciously doing so in certain jurisdictions. Texas, for example, had a surplus of money in the state budget, yet the legislature shot down a bill aimed at adding air conditioning to state prisons. Instead, the government would rather taxpayers shell out millions of dollars settling wrongful death and civil rights lawsuits to inmates and their surviving family members. 

 

You know, this ass backwards kind of approach, it not only costs society fiscally far more than need be, but it also costs us in terms of humanity. What does it say about a society where the government knowingly allows its adults and children to be cooked to death within its walls? Because that’s exactly what’s happening here at these facilities. These individuals are no less human than you or me. These are people, fathers and brothers, mothers, sisters, human lives. Their failure to follow society’s rules does not mean that they signed up to live in unconscionably savage conditions. 

 

And if you can’t find it in your heart to give a damn about the inmates, adults or children, well think about the guards and staff. They’re not exempt from the brutal heat of these unconditioned carceral buildings. They too are taken out on stretchers unable to finish a day’s work struggling to stay cool. All said, from inmate to taxpayer to overseer to humanity, we are all suffering when the heat gets turned up. That is unless lawmakers do something. I implore you. Demand your lawmakers do something. No one should have to live this way.

 

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