Savannah Eldrige noticed her brother had a heat rash when she visited him at a Texas prison early in summer 2023. Outdoor temperatures were already topping 100 F, and it got even hotter inside the prison walls.
“He described that he had taken a shower one day, and it’s so hot that they don’t even need to dry off,” she said. “By the time you step out, you’re already sweating or you’re already dry.”
Advocates have been pressing the state to provide incarcerated workers with more water and breaks and to take other safety measures to counter extreme heat such as air conditioning the cells. But Texas legislators have resisted even as the state experienced its second-hottest summer on record in 2023, with many major cities in the state hitting over 40 days with triple-digit temperatures.
Tommy McCullough, 35, died in June 2023 while mowing the grass outside the prison where he was incarcerated in Huntsville, Texas. His family said exposure to the heat caused him to go into cardiac arrest.
The Texas Tribune found that at least 41 people died of either heart-related or unknown causes in Texas prisons in summer 2023, many of them in their 20s and 30s.
The Tribune noted that the Texas Department of Criminal Justice said no prisoner has died from heat since 2012, which the Tribune reported was “around the time the agency began being bombarded with wrongful death and civil rights lawsuits over the heat.” The Tribune reported that Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives have asked the Republican chair of the federal Committee on Oversight and Accountability to launch an investigation.
A problem set to get worse
Extreme heat is unbearable for all Texans — and even worse for the state’s incarcerated people, many of whom lack air conditioning. Only 30% of Texas prisons have air conditioning, and temperatures inside regularly reach over 110 F during the summer months, according to a study by Texas A&M researcher J. Carlee Purdum. At least one unit reached 149 F.
Climate change is making extreme heat more common in Texas and around the world. The annual number of days above 100 F in Texas has doubled in the last 45 years and is projected to double again by 2036, according to a 2021 report from the Office of the Texas State Climatologist.
With climate change making extreme heat ever more dire, advocates and researchers are pushing for adaptation strategies to protect the more than 1 million people incarcerated in the United States, and potential solutions range from new prison policies to freeing people from prison.
Heat’s effects on the incarcerated human body
To replicate conditions inside prisons, an organization called the Texas Prisons Community Advocates created the #7MinuteCarChallenge, in which participants sit in their hot cars without air conditioning for seven minutes. This, Eldrige said, allows people to “get a glimpse of what it might feel like to be in a cramped space, or to be in a six-by-nine cell with two people in there.”
Please note that if you try this challenge at home, these conditions can be extremely dangerous and even deadly, as they are within prisons.
It’s dangerous because extreme heat is hard on the human body. Exposure to high temperatures can lead to dehydration, heat stroke, and heat exhaustion. Heat-related illnesses can cause a person’s heart to stop beating and the kidneys to shut down. Many prisoners are older and taking medications that reduce their body’s ability to cope with heat, exacerbating the risks.
Symptoms include dizziness, thirst, heavy sweating, nausea, and weakness. If you or someone you know is experiencing heat exhaustion, move to a cooler area, loosen clothing, sip cool water, and seek medical help if symptoms don’t improve. Untreated heat exhaustion can lead to heat stroke.
Symptoms include confusion, dizziness, and becoming unconscious. If someone is experiencing heat stroke, call 911, move them to a cooler area, loosen clothing, and remove extra layers, and cool with water or ice. When not treated quickly, heat stroke can cause death or permanent disability.
Amite Dominick, president and founder of Texas Prisons Community Advocates, said people with diabetes and mental health conditions are particularly vulnerable.
“You have individuals who literally are making a choice over the summer, ‘Should I take my diabetic medicine? Or should I not? I might die if I take my medicine because I can’t sweat. But I might die from the diabetes,’” she said.
Dominick said incarcerated people with schizophrenia also sometimes avoid taking antipsychotic medications that help control their symptoms because they make people more vulnerable to heat-related illnesses. “Now we’ve got a psychotic episode that has to be managed by staff and there’s not enough staff to manage them in the first place,” she said.
Kristen Cowan, a public health researcher at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said the race and ethnicity of many incarcerated people also make them more vulnerable. Black men in particular, she said, are overrepresented in prison populations. “This group is already at very high vulnerability to climate-related effects, and in general public health issues, because of all types of structural racism that exists in America.”
Prisons aren’t ready for climate change
Prison populations must be considered in climate adaptation planning, Cowan said. She and her colleagues reviewed state and prison emergency planning documents to see which strategies were already in place.
“We didn’t find that many states even included anything about people who are in prison in their state, and the only time they did was in terms of mitigating hazard to the actual structures of the prisons,” she said. “And then they also talked about being able to use people who are in prison for labor in the situation of any type of disaster.”
Worker protections for people in prison
Prison labor is one area that Texas prison advocates are focused on in trying to protect incarcerated people from extreme heat.
Savannah Eldrige runs Be Frank 4 Justice, an organization she founded in honor of her brother, and works to help incarcerated people and their families. She is also co-director of state operations for the Abolish Slavery National Network, which works to protect people convicted of committing a crime from indentured servitude. (Incarcerated people in Texas earn no money in exchange for their work.)
When she heard about how McCullough died while cutting the grass, she wondered which worker protections were available to him.
“The first thing I thought about was what were workers on the community side doing — were landscapers having their workers cutting grass in this heat? And if so, what type of protections were they afforded that Mr. McCullough was not afforded? Did he have access to water?” she said. “We have labor standards in the community, and incarcerated workers don’t have those same protections.”
More air conditioning in prisons
Dominick and the Texas Prisons Community Advocates have been pushing for more air conditioning in prisons since the organization was founded in summer 2021. The Texas legislature meets for regular sessions for five months during odd years, so advocates made another big push in 2023. The bill didn’t pass.
“It’s beyond ridiculous,” Dominick said. “We were just were floored. This is the second time that we’ve gotten this bill past the House floor for just one person in the Senate to absolutely refuse to even give it a public hearing.”
They continue to demand that temperatures in all units of Texas prisons be kept between 55 and 85 F — pointing to the fact that the Texas Department of Criminal Justice runs a pig farming program and plans to keep the animals in climate-controlled barns.
“The fact that we are treating human beings this way — what does this say about our society? We are a society that is premeditatedly torturing other individuals,” Dominick said.
The push for ‘decarceration’ and ‘abolition’ to protect people from climate change
The U.S. has the largest prison population in the world — more than 20% of global prisoners are held in this country. Kristen Cowan at UNC-Chapel Hill said reducing the number of incarcerated people could serve as a public health strategy.
“As disasters become more common with climate change, [incarcerated people are] definitely one of the most at-risk groups, and it’s a lot of work for state governments to try to figure out how to manage all of this,” she said. “So if more people weren’t living in these prisons, it would be easier to manage disaster response overall.”
J. Carlee Purdum at Texas A&M published a paper in 2021 titled “No Justice, No Resilience: Prison Abolition As Disaster Mitigation in an Era of Climate Change.” In the paper, Purdum and co-authors define abolition as ‘‘a political vision with the goal of eliminating imprisonment, policing, and surveillance and creating lasting alternatives to punishment and imprisonment.’’
In the article, they argue that there is no way to keep incarcerated people safe within the prison during weather disasters like heat waves and that abolition is an essential harm-mitigation tool as the U.S. works to adapt to climate change.
“Given the harm, abuse, and disruption of resilience perpetuated by incarceration, we recommend abolition as a form of mitigation,” the authors conclude.
Achieving this vision will be a challenge, Cowan said. “I think this is like the most difficult strategy to come at it with,” she said. “But the best thing we could do is get more people out of prison.”