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At least 41 people died in stifling, unrefrigerated prisons of heart-related or unknown causes during a brutal, record-breaking heat wave in Texas this summer, according to a Texas Tribune analysis.
Relatives of those who died and prison rights advocates insist that at least some of those deaths were due to heat. More than a dozen of the inmates were in their 20s or 30s, with at least four people age 35 or younger dying of cardiac arrest or heart failure. The Texas Department of Criminal Justice says no inmate has died from extreme heat in its facilities since 2012, just as the agency began to be bombarded with wrongful death and civil rights lawsuits over the heat.
On Monday, Democrats on the U.S. House Oversight and Accountability Committee implored Republican Chairman James Comer to launch an investigation into conditions in prisons suffering from sweltering temperatures, especially in Texas. The request comes after Republican committee members investigated the conditions of defendants imprisoned on charges related to the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.
“The ability of prisons to adequately prepare and provide resources to address increasingly extreme weather caused by climate change deserves immediate attention from this committee,” Democrats, including Texas Reps. Greg Cassar and Jasmine Crockett, wrote. “If Republicans on the committee are serious about monitoring conditions inside prisons and correctional facilities, and not just playing politics with one facility, it is critical that you demand that facilities across the country hold inmates in a humane setting and not limit your interest.” For one facility.”
Comer’s office did not immediately respond to questions about the letter.
More than two-thirds of Texas’s 100 prisons do not have air conditioning in most living areas inside the concrete and steel buildings where officers and inmates work and live. With little or no ventilation and temperatures routinely reaching triple digits outside, thermometer readings inside prisons often soar.
Since June, at least a dozen inmates have died of cardiac arrest or heart failure in uncooled prisons on days when outdoor heat indexes in the area were above 100 degrees, according to a Texas Tribune analysis of prison death reports and weather data. At least 29 others died of still unknown causes pending autopsy results.
The number of deaths is likely higher, as prisons have 30 days to notify the state of a prisoner’s death.
Mothers and sisters of prisoners who died this summer insist that heat and indifference killed their loved ones, and condemned TDCJ for failing to identify heat as a cause of death. According to medical experts, heat-related deaths are often undercounted and misclassified, and a wealth of studies link an increase in fatal heart failure to extreme heat.
TDCJ spokeswoman Amanda Hernandez said Monday that her agency alone does not determine the cause of death; Rather, the medical examiner decides whether deaths are heat-related. In at least one death, officials believe the man was using drugs, the agency said.
Relatives also say the agency’s reports are unreliable because they indicate staff are more likely to suffer from heat illness than prisoners, even though staff are able to leave after their shifts.
TDCJ reported 35 staff members with heat-related illnesses this year, but only 14 among prisoners, despite seemingly endless reports from prisoners and their loved ones of men and women passing out or experiencing other symptoms of heat exhaustion.
Under court supervision, TDCJ in recent years has implemented a variety of heat mitigation strategies, including providing fans and ice water to inmates and allowing cold shower requests and temporary respite in air-conditioned parts of the jail, such as chapels or barbershops. . But every summer, a large number of prisoners and their supporters claim that such policies are not being followed.
“They have rest areas where people can go to get rest, but you rarely see them there because we have little means, and that’s why. “.
TDCJ has been chronically understaffed for years, and officer unions often cite the debilitating heat as a primary reason for staff departures.
In the letter to Congress, Democrats noted that the Texas Legislature has rejected attempts to allocate money directly for air conditioning in its prisons, despite increasingly hot summers and a state budget surplus this year.
“State lawmakers are of the mindset that allowing prisoners to suffer from excessive heat is appropriately tough on crime,” the representatives said, concluding, “The problem of prison conditions requires serious attention by Congress, and we hope you will join us in this critical endeavor.”
Hernandez said the letter ignores that lawmakers have allocated money to retrofit Texas prisons, including $85 million earmarked for the upcoming biennium. The $85 million was awarded to TDCJ to be used for “deferred maintenance projects,” not specifically for air conditioning. Hernandez did not previously say whether the money was specifically earmarked for this purpose.
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