The weekslong June heat wave scorching Texas has been particularly brutal and dangerous inside the state’s sprawling prison system, where a majority of those incarcerated, and the guards who watch over them, have been struggling without air-conditioning, reports the New York Times. In more than a dozen interviews this week, current and former inmates, as well as their relatives and friends, described an elemental effort at survival inside the prisons, with inmates relying on warm water, wet towels and fans that push hot air. Some flooded their cells with water from their combination sink-toilets, lying on the wet concrete for relief. Others, desperate for guards’ attention, lit fires or took to screaming in unison for water or for help with an inmate who had passed out. “If somebody goes down, we start beating on the lockers and doors yelling, ‘Man down!” said Luke King, 41, an inmate in Huntsville. With the heat, he said, that has been happening “at least daily.”
The superheated conditions inside many prisons — where temperatures can reach 110 degrees or above — have been a well-known problem for years, and not just in Texas. Across the South, prisons in habitually hot states like Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi also do not provide centralized air-conditioning in most cases. The heat dome that has settled in recent weeks over Texas has been increasingly shifting to the east, bringing extreme temperatures into those Southern states. In Texas, the Republican-controlled House this year proposed spending $545 million to install air-conditioning in the majority of state prisons that do not have it. The House overwhelmingly approved a bill to require that the temperature in prisons be no higher than 85 degrees and no lower than 65. State law in Texas already requires county jails to keep the temperature within that range. The bill to require cooling died in the Senate. Despite a record surplus, the final state budget did not include money specifically for prison air-conditioning, though state prison officials have been slowly expanding cooling facilities within their existing budgets.