Texas is one of at least thirteen states in the U.S. that does not have universal airconditioning in state prisons. Throughout the history of imprisonment in Texas, incarcerated people have experienced great harm from extreme heat and a lack of adequate protections. Although 87 percent of households in the U.S. use air-conditioning equipment, only 30 percent of Texas prison units are fully air-conditioned. The number of incarcerated people who have fallen ill or died from exposure to extreme temperatures throughout the state’s history is unknown, yet notable clusters of heat-related illnesses and deaths have occurred. The lack of air-conditioning in prisons, especially housing areas, has been argued to be in violation of human rights. Extreme heat disproportionately impacts incarcerated people with medical or mental health vulnerabilities. Such vulnerabilities are overrepresented in prison systems across the U.S. and especially in Texas. Increasing annual temperatures and the increase of days over 100 degrees in Texas will continue to exacerbate the degradation of health for both incarcerated people and staff.
Findings from this report demonstrate how current heat mitigation policies do not result in adequate protections against heat-related illness for incarcerated people. The experiences of incarcerated people in Texas prisons illuminate systemic issues and patterns across units and also expand the understanding of heat-related illness and death as an ongoing but preventable disaster. Additionally, surveys and letters collected in 2020 reveal how the COVID-19 pandemic, which has disproportionately impacted incarcerated populations in Texas, created further challenges to the individually focused heat mitigation strategies in Texas prisons. Incarcerated people have described the environment of extreme heat and the COVID-19 pandemic as a "living hell."