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Silhouette of barbed wires and watchtower of prison against a hot orange sky.
Photo by Gatsi on iStock.

Imagine yourself in an oven. Now imagine the heat is cranked up to 100 degrees. That might sound scary, but don’t panic. I’m going to give you two fans that you can use inside the oven, which will circulate the hot air that already exists.

The heat that we inmates in Texas prisons have to endure amounts to cruel and unusual punishment. A July 2022 Texas A&M University report found that Texas prisons regularly reach 110 degrees Fahrenheit. In one case, a prison unit even reached 149 degrees. According to the report, only 30% of Texas prison living areas have air conditioning, well below the 87% of American households that have in-home cooling systems.

An analysis by The Intercept found that 21 prisons in Texas lack air conditioning.

In the Lone Star state, it seems that once you commit a crime, you are not only incarcerated for it, but also subjected to unbearable and sickening weather that’s easily avoidable with proper air conditioning. Without it, serious health concerns can occur. Heat exhaustion can be felt at 80 degrees, and you can be at risk for heat stroke when temperatures start to reach 91 degrees. 

People in Texas prisons have fought this problem through lawsuits for years, and according to the Texas A&M report, there have been at least 23 heat-related deaths and many more injuries since 1998. One of the report authors told the Texas House Appropriations Committee that the impact of heat is “wildly underestimated.”

But instead of spending money to cool prisons and save lives, the state has spent millions of dollars on court cases fighting air conditioning, according to The Texas Tribune. 

There are some devices and techniques used in prisons to help cool us down, but I don’t believe any of these tactics are very effective. One device is a blower, which is built into the walls. They are supposed to blow out hot air, but temperatures in our prison remain hot throughout the day. Even when it cools down late at night, it’s still around 88 degrees inside. 

In prison, blow dryers are often used to cook food. You take a bag, and place food inside. Then you make a hole in the top of the bag and you place the blow dryer inside.  The heated air from the blow dryer fries the food.  

Now think about that same process, but slightly altered. Place 102 women in metal cubicles with concrete floors. There is no air conditioning in our dorms. The dorm is now our cooking bag. 

We have a couple ways to try to cool down. You can walk around in wet clothes, but this gets tiresome because it’s so hot that your clothes dry every 20 minutes. You can wet your concrete floor with cold water, but that won’t cool the floor down. You just wind up with warm water on your floor.

There are designated “respite” areas with air conditioning, including the school building, the chapel and the visitation area, where many prison staff work. 

The opportunity to cool down in an air conditioned space is supposed to be allowed 24/7, but officers in Texas prisons have used this as a retaliatory weapon. Officers deny inmates respite or limit the time they are allowed to have respite.

Sometimes the air conditioning in a respire space is broken for long periods. Instead, a fan will be used to replace air conditioning. That means you have nowhere to go for relief. 

There was a bill introduced in the Texas legislature 2021 to install air conditioning in Texas prisons. It passed the House, but died in the Senate. That means we have to continue to endure the heat and hope for a cooler forecast.

(Additional reporting by PJP)

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

Khaȧliq Shakur is a trans writer incarcerated in Texas.