Tanvi Misra is a staff writer for CityLab covering immigrant communities, housing, economic inequality, and culture. She also authors Navigator, a weekly newsletter for urban explorers (subscribe here). Her work also appears in The Atlantic, NPR, and BBC.
Fourteen prisoners have died from heat-related causes since 2007. Is anything being done about it?
Sarah Kendrick started work as a corrections officer at the Clemens Unit prison in Brazoria County, Texas, in July 1998—the height of summer. She was posted in the cell block and the laundry room. With no air conditioning, the high temperatures everywhere in the building were excruciating.
"When you walk in that building, the cement, the metal, and the brick all work to hold it together—like an incubator," she says. "It was not a good situation to ever be in." The temperature would go well above 100 degrees, she remembers. Complaints had little effect because of prison's "get back to work, or get out" attitude, she says. And for her—a single mom with two kids—leaving wasn't an option then.
In 2002, she finally quit. Eight years later, she married an inmate she met while she was working at the prison. Her husband, Jonathan Lee Kendrick, still has 20 years left to serve of his sentence. He's currently at the Wynne Unit in Huntsville, Texas. In one of their conversations, he told her about his summer—and about how one of this friends had to be taken to the infirmary for what seemed like a heat stroke.
But we aren't just talking about heat-related illnesses. Since 2007, 14 Texas inmates in the state's nine prisons operated by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice have died from exposure to extremely high temperatures. The department's 109 units house 151,000 prisoners. And they, like Kendrick's husband, continue to be exposed to unbearable heat every time summer rolls around.
"They're people ... they're of the human race that deserves their health taken care of as we do," Kendrick says. "Just because they're incarcerated, just because they made a mistake—intentional or not—they still need to be treated as human beings."
'Summer Comes Every Year, and Every Year, People Die'
All of the victims who died heat-induced deaths had pre-existing physical or mental conditions that made them susceptible to heat; Five of those who died had been in prison for less than a week.
These were facts presented by a delegation from Texas who petitioned a hearing at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights this week. The petitioners—the Human Rights Clinic at the University of Texas Law School and the Texas Civil Rights Project—argued that the extreme conditions created by the lack of air conditioning were unbearable, unjustifiable, and completely preventable.
The absence of representatives from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice at the hearing was conspicuous. Nevertheless, the clinic read on from their report on the issue while State Department officials sitting across them promised to relay their concerns, which include the following:
The temperature in Texas goes up to 149 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer. As early as 10:30 a.m., inmates and guards are already in the danger zone. Inmates have filed 147 formal reports of heat-related illnesses, and correctional officers attest that the temperatures are unbearable. Many of the inmates are on medication for physical or mental illnesses that make them even more vulnerable to heat. (82 percent of Texas prisoners were diagnosed with mental illnesses and the possible heat-related side effects of their medications weren't always shared with them).
Yet there are still no plans to install air conditioning throughout the prisons—a simple, permanent fix. Neighboring states, such as Louisiana (which has a higher rate of incarceration), have installed air conditioning. So has the U.S. Guantanamo Bay detention camp in Cuba, the petitioners announced at the hearing.
It's not like the Texas Department of Criminal Justice isn't aware of the issue; they've been aware of it since 1998, says Brian McGiverin, attorney at the Texas Civil Rights Project. McGiverin represents some of the victims' families in wrongful death suits. Subjecting prisoners to these temperatures violates the 8th and 14th amendment rights to be free from cruel and unusual punishment, he and the other lawyers say.
"Summer comes every year, and every year, people die," McGiverin says. "But even now, TDCJ is refusing to take basic steps to protect inmates."
I reached out to the TDCJ and was told that they couldn't comment specifically because of the litigation pending in Texas courts. It's the same reason they gave for not being at the hearing on Monday. Spokesman Jason Clark did highlight in an email the measures they have taken to relieve the prisoners from the extreme heat:
TDCJ takes precautions to help reduce heat-related illnesses such as providing water and ice to staff and offenders in work and housing areas, restricting offender activity during the hottest parts of the day, and training staff to identify those with heat related illnesses and refer them to medical staff for treatment.
Although a detailed cost analysis has not been done, retrofitting facilities with air conditioning would be extremely expensive. It should be noted that medical, psychiatric, and geriatric units are air conditioned.
The petitioners at the hearing acknowledged some of these measures, but maintained that these precautions are neither adequate nor adequately implemented. For example, the clinic's report says that the coolers of ice water are put out once or twice a day, but inmates have reported that they're often dirty and full of mosquitos. Fans and shorts are only available at the commissary, so the inmates—overwhelmingly low-income and minority individuals—have to bear the cost. Showers were allowed only three times a week in one unit, one interviewed prisoner reported.
The other defense—that medical, psychiatric, and geriatric units are air conditioned, is "baloney with a seed of truth," says McGiverin. His organization has filed a lawsuit in Houston federal courts against the Wallace Pack Unit, which identifies itself as a geriatric facility.
"I've walked up and down the halls, there's no air conditioning," he says. The "seed of truth," he says, is that the TDCJ has about 551 air-conditioned beds for over 150,000 inmates.
McGiverin also dismisses the excuse that general air conditioning would be too expensive. The cost would hover only in the tens of thousands, he estimates, depending on the facility and the number of prisoners it holds.
"Let me put it this way," he says. "TDCJ is three billion dollar agency; $20,000? $10,000? It’s chump change.”
It's not that Texas Governor Rick Perry has shied away from prison reform. In fact, Eric Shchnurer writes in The Atlantic that Texas legislators have realized that reform measures can help them free up a chunk of their budget:
In 2007, conservative legislators in Austin were staggered by projections for how much it would cost to run the Department of Criminal Justice if the system went unchanged. The state faced the prospect of building approximately 17,000 new prison beds within five years at a cost of nearly $1.15 billion. Instead, the legislature budgeted approximately $250 million for community-treatment programs and increased the number of inmates served by in-prison treatment and rehabilitation programs. In 2009, the state added reentry-program coordinators to help reduce the number of released inmates who return to prison. Texas’s effort now forms the basis for the bipartisan prison-reform legislation moving through Congress.
But if there is money being saved, and there is political will—why are there still no air conditioners?
"The problem is the cross-current of trying to be tough on crime in the state," McGiverin offers. "They [prison establishment] don't want to be identified as the guy or the girl who air conditioned Texas prisons."
Despite an ebb in the otherwise high tide of incarceration in Texas, the prison population in absolute numbers is the highest of any state—and continues to be at risk for heat-induced illnesses and death.
'You Are Not Here for a Vacation'
Of the 14 men who died, some were incarcerated for nonviolent crimes: a couple were booked for DWIs and one for a forgery. Others were there on murder charges—like Kendrick's husband, who was incarcerated at age 15. In 2010, the detective on his case told him that new evidence might cast doubt on his conviction. Kendrick hopes that this helps reduce her husband's sentence. She's always worried about him while he is in there, especially since he has been on blood pressure medication for the last two years which makes him sensitive to heat.
In her opinion, things aren't moving forward because not many people believe that prisoners deserve air conditioning, be it legislators, prison high command, or her own former co-workers.
"You are not here for a vacation," is pretty much their view towards the prisoners, she remembers. She recalls that if any of the inmates were executed, of if they hanged themselves or got stabbed, some guards would say, "Well, that's one less body we have to deal with."
"We were told that our job was to rehabilitate and not to punish—that being incarcerated was their punishment," she says. "So many don't take that advice."