‘Man Down!’: Surviving the Texas Heat in Prisons Without Air-Conditioning

On the third day of 100-degree temperatures last week, locked without air-conditioning in a Texas prison north of Houston, Joseph Martire said he began to feel overwhelmed. His breathing grew heavy.

An inmate for nearly 16 years, Mr. Martire was expecting to be released in a few weeks. But it was so hot that day, he recalled, that he wondered if he would make it that long. He was covered in sweat and felt so lightheaded that he had to brace himself against a wall. At some point, he passed out.

“It’s kind of weird getting woken up with fingers in your eyes and not knowing how you got there,” Mr. Martire, 35, said of the efforts to revive him by pressing on pressure points around his eyes. He was eventually moved to an air-conditioned emergency medical area. “They kept me there for two hours, drinking ice water, salt water, taking my temperature, making sure I was still alive,” he said.

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.

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 going on 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 the 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 who, along with Mr. Martire, is in a prison in Huntsville, Texas. 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, according to a 2019 report. And 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 also 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 State Senate. And 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.

State Representative Terry Canales, a Democrat from South Texas, blamed the lack of action on Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, a conservative Republican who leads the Senate. Mr. Patrick’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

“The narrative comes from the 1980s that we need to be tough on crime, and installing A.C. in prisons seems soft on inmates,” said Mr. Canales, who sponsored the temperature legislation and has brought bills to address prison heat in each of the last two legislative sessions.

“The truth is the state is paying millions of dollars a year in heat-related lawsuits and we’re facing chronic corrections-officer shortages,” he added. “It’s not conservative. Being in prison in and of itself is a punishment. But nobody is signed up to be tortured.”

The Texas Department of Criminal Justice, which runs the prisons, has not attributed any of the 32 inmate deaths recorded this month to excessive heat, and has not reported a heat-related death since 2012. Inmate advocates have questioned those statistics. A 2022 study of Texas prisoner deaths found that on average, more than 10 a year could be attributed to the heat in prisons without air-conditioning.

“We take numerous precautions to lessen the effects of hot temperatures for those incarcerated within our facilities,” Amanda Hernandez, a department spokeswoman, said in a statement. “These efforts work.” So far in June, she said, there have been five inmates with heat-related injuries who required medical care “beyond first aid.” Last June, there were three such cases.

She added: “Much like those Texans who do not have access to air-conditioning in their homes,” inmates are able to keep themselves cool by other means: ice water, fans and “access to air-conditioned respite areas when needed.” She said that the department had taken steps to identify inmates who were potentially more vulnerable to the heat and given them priority placement in areas with air-conditioning.

The department operates 98 facilities, of which 31 are fully air-conditioned and 14 have no cooling at all. The rest have air-conditioning only in certain areas. The department has been adding air-conditioning each year and now has more than 43,000 “cool beds” — about a third of those in the system — according to Ms. Hernandez. The department has discussed plans to eventually air-condition all prisons at a projected cost of more than $1 billion, but still needs the funding.

In the meantime, several current inmates and their families said prisoners were suffering through the heat and had often been unable access the promised respite areas, either because of staffing shortages or because they were denied permission. Others said there were few fans available, or that the water in their prison showers — meant as a means of cooling — offered little relief.

“He says, ‘I feel terrible, I have to go take a shower,’” said Cynthia Anguiano, 41, describing a conversation with her fiancé, who has been serving a long sentence for a fatal shooting. “And then the water comes out like almost hot.”

She said two of her brothers, also in Texas prisons, had been sharing their struggles with her via text messages. “Hey sis, what’s up? It’s been hot as hell over here,” read one of their messages, shared with The New York Times. “I get shortness of breath because there’s no air circulation.”

Hope Thommen, 40, said her boyfriend was serving a sentence for armed robbery in a prison in Central Texas, which he described to her as feeling “like a chicken coop in the heat with no shade.” He told her that other inmates had set fire to sheets and mattresses, “trying to get the guards attention because they’re hot,” she said.

“From the minute he wakes up he says, ‘I feel like I’m dying,’” Ms. Thommen said.

One of the most vocal groups advocating for inmates in Texas grew out of concern over the heat in past years. “The way to solve this problem would be to simply put the air-conditioners in,” said Amite Dominick, one of the authors of the 2022 heat death study and the founder of the group, Texas Prisons Community Advocates. “People are desperate. They’re tired of it.”

Excessive temperatures inside prisons have also been a problem for employees and guards, said Jeff Ormsby, the executive director of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Texas Corrections, a union representing prison workers.

“It’s been really bad. We’ve had several people call and say they’re quitting because of the heat,” Mr. Ormsby said. “It’s a messed-up situation. The working conditions are horrific. The assaults go up in the summer because of the heat. It’s just a stress factor.”

An employee at one prison said the heat was so intense that his work clothes were often soaked through with sweat and that he occasionally felt overwhelmed enough to need to sit down. The employee, who requested anonymity because he feared reprisal for complaining about his work conditions, said he had seen a colleague taken away in an ambulance this month.

Inmates described similar experiences of watching those around them succumb to the extreme temperatures. “I’ve seen a lot of old people go down from this heat. There’s just no relief here, there ain’t none,” said Mr. King in Huntsville, who was imprisoned for crimes including theft and burglary. “I’d hate to lose my life behind this. I’d hate to die because I’m in a hot cell.”

He added: “I understand that we’re inmates and we make mistakes. Paying for your mistakes is one thing. But living like this is wrong.”

Mr. Martire, who has been serving a sentence for burglary, said that when he passed out from the heat this month there were two others in the emergency area, also recovering from being overheated.

“It’s like sitting inside of a convection oven,” he said in a telephone interview. “It heats up and it keeps on heating up when the sun goes down.” He has tried to stay focused on his impending release and said his plans for coping with the summer heat on the outside were relatively simple.

“Swimming as much as possible,” he said.

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