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Extreme heat raises concern about the health of prison inmates, particularly in Texas


As a dangerous heat wave stifles much of the southwest, it can be a struggle to stay cool. That is especially true for an often-overlooked group of people - prisoners who are housed in aging facilities. In Texas, which operates the country's second-largest prison system, some 100,000 prisoners live without air conditioning. Texas Public Radio's Paul Flahive has our story.

PAUL FLAHIVE, BYLINE: This Texas inmate says the best way to describe what it's like to be in a Texas prison cell without air conditioning is to think barbecue.

UNIDENTIFIED PRISONER: Like you're standing over a grill all day.

FLAHIVE: It's like standing over a grill all day. We aren't using this inmate's name because Texas prison rules bar him from giving phone interviews, and he worries about retribution from administrators. He says he goes to bed drenched in sweat every night and wakes up drenched every day. In between, he tries to stay cool by dousing himself in water.

UNIDENTIFIED PRISONER: The lowest you are, the cooler it is. So I put water on my ground and lay in it. Sometimes, it's just me pretty much naked in the cell.

FLAHIVE: Data from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice obtained from a state lawmaker show its 68 prisons without air conditioning were sweltering last month, averaging well over 85 degrees. That would be a safety violation for a county jail that mandates temperatures remain below 85. But no such regulation exists for state prisons, some of which reached as high as 106 degrees last month. And those readings weren't taken at the height of the facility's heat. Heat estimates are as high as 115 degrees. Don Aldaco spent 14 years in un-air-conditioned prisons across Texas. He was paroled in April. Aldaco says he was lucky to get three hours of sleep a night on the hottest days.

DON ALDACO: Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night where I'm pouring sweat, you know? I'm pouring sweat. But I'm thinking that I've got something crawling on me, but it's the actual sweat pouring off your body.

FLAHIVE: A spokeswoman for the state prison system says they take special precautions for heat-sensitive inmates, keeping them in air-conditioned beds. For everyone else, they offer limited access to respite or air-conditioned areas and, when possible, offer additional showers, ice and allow for personal fans. But the inmate in the North Texas prison we spoke with says those efforts aren't enough, and he says correction officers blame an ongoing staffing crisis.

UNIDENTIFIED PRISONER: Their excuse for everything is the staff. You get cold water once or twice a day, and they excuse always is the staff, staff, staff.

FLAHIVE: The inmate says he's concerned about his health. A 2022 study by the Journal of the American Medical Association found 271 prisoner deaths in Texas Facilities without air conditioning between 2001 and 2019 may be attributable to extreme heat days.

JOE MOODY: I think it is very well documented that heat has contributed to deaths in this prison system.

FLAHIVE: Texas State House member Joe Moody, a Democrat, has for years tried to pass legislation to air-condition all state prisons.

MOODY: There's no need for us to continue to allow folks to cook - literally cook in our prisons. And that's something we should just always find unacceptable.

FLAHIVE: House Rep. Moody's bill again failed. Then, the Republican-dominated state Senate stripped $500 million out of the budget bill that would have dramatically increased air conditioning in prisons throughout the system.

For NPR News, I'm Paul Flahive in San Antonio.

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Paul Flahive
Paul Flahive is the technology and entrepreneurship reporter for Texas Public Radio. He has worked in public media across the country, from Iowa City and Chicago to Anchorage and San Antonio.