In 2011, within a span of 26 days, ten inmates passed away due to heat related causes in Texas Prisons.
Anyway, this is serious. I will preface what you are about to read with a very important truth: It isn’t sensationalized. I was contracted through an outside agency by a private prison as a nurse for a little while, and have also worked as a nurse in a county jail. I have been in both federal and state prisons as a part of my education back when I thought I was going to work in substance abuse rehab. And my husband is incarcerated. I have no reason to sensationalize the following as it is appalling and heart breaking enough on its own without any help from me and my words.
There are approximately 140,000 people incarcerated in state jail and Texas Department of Criminal Justice units all over the state of Texas. The few privately owned, contracted units in Texas do have air conditioning. However, the 83rd Legislature voted to terminate the contract and subsequently close those exceptions. Polunsky Unit, where death row inmates are housed, is also air conditioned. In Amarillo there is central heat due to the “extreme” (I doubt anybody in Amarillo ever had to wear Idaho socks* to prevent their legs from shattering, snapping off and being blown across the vast, windy emptiness of whatever Idaho is made out of – which I suspect involves some sort of potato product and sand.) cold in the winter time. There are a couple of other units with air conditioning as well. But when I say a couple, I mean literally. A couple.
In the privately held units in which I’ve worked, the temperature is supposed to remain at, around or close to 80 degrees. When you combine no ventilation or windows with 100 or so human beings living in a closed, locked pod, 80 degrees translates to eightygodzillionsatan’sbathroom.
Ever heard of a hoe squad? Here's one in Texas taken in 1967.
The hoe squads of today are exactly the same.
But in Texas prisons, there is no ventilation. They are block buildings with a metal roof. There are almost no windows at all, at least not that inmates have access to. In the summer time here, the temperatures tend to be very extreme. Texas has been in a years long season of varying degrees of drought. There have been times when the water at my husband’s unit was turned off. And buckets of hot water were left for inmates to politely agree upon sharing. Right. One of these occurrences was the summer of 2011. The temperatures outside at that time hovered right around 110-115 degrees for months.
The Sugarland Central Unit occupied this land since
1908. This building was in use from 1932 to 2011.
As a result of this environment, my husband was covered in heat rash that wouldn’t heal because he’d remove his mattress and sleep on the metal underneath to try to keep himself cool, leaving him to baste in his own sweat while attempting to rest for the couple hours before 2:30 a.m. checks when the lights are turned on if they aren’t already on and everyone is awakened to make sure they’re all still there. My husband is young and his consequences are necessary.
But when it’s 125 degrees inside, (heat indexes in 2011 averaged between 130-150 degrees OUT DOORS daily that year) and you’re locked in a unit with 1,000 other human beings in addition to the ones charged with keeping all of you there, and there are wild fires literally encircling this place where no one can bathe and drought requires that the water is randomly turned off, you start to die.
Fun Fact: The Viking who calls me his wifey completed some sort of Army Ranger training with a broken foot, so swollen that he could no longer fit it into his boot, and so black that it nicely contrasted with the silver duct tape with which he wrapped it so that he wouldn’t be forced to quit due to his injury. Needless to say, this man does not complain. Ever. He is the epitome of stoicism. He endures because he knows that it’s a part of his refinement as a man with flaws that the state could no longer ignore when those flaws posed a threat to others. In June of 2011, the aforementioned Viking disappeared. I did not hear from him for over one month. He had become so wilted and hopeless from the hell that him and the other men confined with him were made to live in that he gave up. After enduring nine of the summers I’m attempting to describe here, it was just too much.
The stink and the people dying all around you and the not knowing how much longer you’re going to go without water, no matter that it’s a few hours, and being eaten alive by mites and covered in heat rash. These things are real.
And you know, it doesn’t matter what him and the other ones there with him did or didn’t do. Our treatment of those we confine to prison says nothing about the criminal, but it absolutely says everything about their captors. And a democratic republic such as ours dictates that it is us, the people, not some far away governing body, who decide and ultimately assign consequences to those of us who cannot co-exist without posing a threat to the general public.
As such, that there is not a very obvious delineation between rehabilitation and cruelty in our culture should sicken and leave every single one of us ashamed.
Because my husband is young and in excellent health, he was able to just barely endure the struggle associated with survival in this environment. But others could not. I remember a woman who desperately begged someone to tell her what to do for her husband who’d just had a procedure called a CABG, or coronary artery bypass graft. This particular surgery requires that the sternum be cracked and pulled open so that the heart can be stopped in order to create a circulatory bypass with the ultimate result being improvement of blood flow to the heart. It’s a pretty brutal surgery for anyone, much less those of advanced age with diabetes and other comorbidities. There is air conditioning in the clinics in every single TDC unit in Texas and in all medical units. This woman’s husband was not in a medical unit, and was brought back to prison two days following his CABG in the Summer of 2011. The last she’d heard when I was made aware of the situation was one month prior to requesting help to find her husband as another inmate sent her a letter telling her that her husband had developed gangrene in one of his legs. Before that the last time she heard his voice was as he attempted to feign good health to her on the phone in spite of unrelenting gasping for air because he just could not breathe. I’m sure that he ended up in a medical unit because the rule is that no one dies in prison. Not if the staff can help it. But to endure such a thing as a consequence of a criminal act under the shadow of the 8th amendment is not something that I’m able to reconcile in my heart and mind.
And I am not an advocate of the undertaking of legal action as a means of conflict resolution. But inmates have no legal recourse against the state in response to the health complications they’ve endured because of TDC’s refusal to address this problem. They simply got very sick, or died. The United States Supreme Court ruled in August of 2012 that the conditions in Texas prisons during the summer months are a violation of the 8th amendment of our Constitution which states:
“Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted”.
In light of the state’s willingness to enact legislation to shield themselves from responsibility for deaths and other health problems that have arisen because of their refusal to acknowledge this problem, I absolutely with all my heart DO advocate for as much legal action as every inmate in the state of Texas can throw at TDC as it pertains to this subject. Whatever it takes.
So here’s the deal. I’m asking that you do this for YOURSELF. Not my husband or anyone else’s. Respond to this issue in the name of your duty as a human being to stand up for the sanctity of human life. As an American citizen, YOU are your government. You are directly responsible for every silence you create with your unsaid protests, and every vote cast by elected officials who’s decisions concerning the lives of yourself and your neighbors are enacted in your name.
|Senator John Whitmire|
Here's a great example of one of those decisions.
"I’m sorry about the conditions, but I guess I could be real direct and say, you know, if you don’t want to be there, don’t commit a crime....We have limited taxpayer dollars and resources,” Whitmire said. “And we need to use it as best we can. And it’s not going to be spent for air conditioning of our prisons.”
-Senator John Whitmire, chair of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee.
I am not asking for air conditioning. I’m asking that a 58 year old man not be found dead with a body temperature above 109 degrees and that your response to that not have ANYTHING to do with his conviction. I’m asking that air circulation not be predicated upon whether or not you have enough commissary to buy a fan. I’m asking for hyperthermic death to be removed as a consequence of anything at all. Ever. I’m asking that John Whitmire explain why the state has money to air condition an armory but to let living, breathing children of the same God who created him, exist in heat so horrible that they give up on the chance they desperately hope for to give back to the world for the wrongs they committed.
The state of Texas, and every single person whom this subject does not appeal to, is making a very clear statement with their refusal to even acknowledge that this is a problem, much less correct it. And that statement is this:
There is no chance for you. You go to prison and the only
value your life has left is the money your phone calls and commissary generates
for our entity. You will survive if you find a way to do so on your own, but
not with our help. And if you do manage to come out of it alive, it isn’t
because we hoped for your rehabilitation. Because your mistake will control the
rest of your life. If we truly wanted to rehabilitate you we wouldn’t lock you
in 120 degree cells and ignore you until after you’re dead. Let’s face it, you’re
better off dead.
Please help me tell John Whitmire that we don’t cosign his actions, we didn’t vote for him so that he could allow this to be a thing, and that if he truly respected the law he’d ensure that those who are ordered by the state to provide hydration at specific intervals throughout the day during the summer months in Texas actually start doing so.
Here are some ways you can be just as annoying as I am about this:
- Go here to send John Whitmire an e-mail.
- Here's how to get in touch with him at his office:
Honorable John Whitmire
803 Yale Street
Houston, Texas 77007
(713) 864-5287 (fax)
- If you're a resident of Texas, go here to find out who to contact for your district about this issue.
And if you have a hard time accepting that people who have committed crimes don't give up their person-hood when they break the law, spend some time thinking about this.
It turns out that the word prisoners in Texas most use before they are put to death for their crimes is love. Their last statements are littered with loves. Prisoners tell their families, who are often right there, behind glass, about to watch their condemned relative die, that they love them. In fact, family is the second most frequently spoken word, with thank coming in third. - (Learn more from John Millward's fascinating analysis of the final statements of Texas death row inmates.)