Dems Urge US House Probe as Dozens of Texas Inmates Die in Sweltering Prisons

Protesters gather outside the Texas State Capitol building in Austin, Texas, on July 18, 2023 to demand air conditioning in state prisons, citing the harsh conditions and multiple deaths related to the heat.

(Photo: Sergio Flores/AFP via Getty Images)

Dems Urge US House Probe as Dozens of Texas Inmates Die in Sweltering Prisons

"Despite a surplus in the Texas state budget, state legislators prevail with the mindset that allowing inmates to suffer from excessive heat is appropriately 'tough on crime,'" said the lawmakers.

With extreme heat continuing to affect huge swaths of the United States where nearly 150 million people live—and scientists warning that intense heatwaves are expected be a "new normal" in much of the world due to the fossil fuel-driven climate crisis—Democratic lawmakers on the U.S. House Oversight and Accountability Committee on Monday called on the Republican chairman of the panel to open an investigation into the deaths of dozens of inmates in sweltering prisons this summer.

Lawmakers including Reps. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), and Greg Casar (D-Texas) noted that Republicans have recently called for an investigation into the conditions in the Washington, D.C. jail where defendants accused of participating in the January 6, 2021 insurrection are being held—resulting in an official visit to the facility which found the inmates living in conditions that were "noticeably cleaner and larger" than the rest of the cells.

The Democrats said that the same scrutiny should be given to prisons across the country—including in Texas, where two-thirds of correctional facilities are not air-conditioned—and the same humane conditions should be afforded to all inmates.

"The capacity of prisons and jails to adequately prepare for and provide resources to meet the increasingly extreme weather caused by climate change deserves immediate attention from this committee," wrote the Democrats to Rep. James Comer (R-Ky.), who chairs the committee. "If committee Republicans are serious about conducting oversight of the conditions within prisons and correctional facilities, and not just playing politics with a single facility, it is critical that you demand that facilities across the country hold inmates in a humane environment and not limit your interest to a single facility."

An analysis by The Texas Tribunefound that at least 41 incarcerated people have died of heat-related causes this summer in Texas prisons where cell blocks have no air conditioning, despite the denials of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDJC).

The outlet found that since June, at least a dozen inmates died of cardiac arrest or heart failure on days when the temperature outdoors rose above 100°F—making the uncooled, poorly ventilated prisons even hotter. At least four people who died of those causes were under age 35.

More than 12 of the inmates were in their 20s or 30s, and 29 of them died of causes that are still unknown.

A separate analysis by media company Nexstar counted at least 51 heat-related deaths in Texas prisons since June 1, with the deaths caused by "sudden and unforeseen medical distress" including heart failure.

The TDJC has not officially recorded a death in its prisons as heat-related since 2012—and a spokesperson told the Tribune that at least one of the deaths was believed to be drug-related—but with temperatures in parts of Texas breaking numerous records in the past two months, experts and rights advocates are skeptical.

"On its face, that doesn't make sense," Michele Deitch, director of the Prison and Jail Innovation Lab at the University of Texas LBJ School of Public Affairs, told Austin NBC News affiliate KXAN. "We can see how deaths spike during the summer months. TDCJ may not have proof that these were heat-related deaths, but on its face, it doesn't make sense to say that they are not related."

The Democrats noted in their letter to Comer that the Texas state Senate has refused to pass a state House-passed bill that would require prisons to be kept at 85°F and under and a proposal to spend $545 million to install air conditioning in the state's prisons.

"Despite a surplus in the Texas state budget, state legislators prevail with the mindset that allowing inmates to suffer from excessive heat is appropriately 'tough on crime,'" wrote the lawmakers. "This refusal to implement necessary cooling mechanisms, however, places both inmates and staff at risk for severe heat-borne illnesses, nausea, dizziness, and even death."

The lawmakers said that while special attention is being paid to Texas in light of the recent deaths, the committee should investigate conditions in prisons in all U.S. states, as a majority have taken little to no action to ensure inmates have access to cooling spaces or air conditioning in hot months.

In March, researchers at Brown, Boston, and Harvard universities found that between 2001 and 2019 in state-run and private prisons across the U.S., a 10-degree temperature increase above the historic average correlated with a 5.2% increase in overall deaths and a 6.7% increase in deaths from heart disease.

As David Fathi, director of the ACLU's National Prison Project, toldStateline on Monday, "This is not at all an issue that's confined to what we all think of as the hot states."

"While it may be more common, or more of a pressing problem, in the Southern states and the states of the Southwest, this is now truly a national problem," Fathi said. "The absence of air conditioning in prisons and jails is a disaster waiting to happen. This is not an issue of comfort or luxury, it is an issue of life and death... The decision not to air-condition these facilities is essentially a decision to let people die."

An investigation by the Oversight Committee, said the Democrats, should examine both the conditions of uncooled prisons and the strategies correctional facilities in certain states are taking "to keep both inmates and staff safe."

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