Summer is here, and that means record-high temperatures, wildfires and the beginning of hurricane season on the Atlantic coast. While many Americans seek refuge indoors with shade and air conditioning, others do not have those luxuries — or those choices.
For incarcerated people, these extreme weather events can make prison life unbearable and, in some cases, lethal. In a report published last fall, environmental epidemiologists at Brown University’s School of Public Health revealed that between 2001 and 2019, a total of 271 prisoners died of heat-related causes in Texas prisons alone.
And in 2016, Louisiana spent over $1 million of public funds on legal fees in an attempt to avoid installing air conditioning on death row — surpassing the actual cost of installing air conditioning fourfold, according to expert testimony. In 2022, Louisiana Illuminator reported that all seven prisons in the statewide system still lacked air conditioning in dormitories.
In some parts of the nation, we rely on the labor of incarcerated people to help fight certain natural disasters. In recent years, incarcerated people have made up more than 22% of California’s wildfire fighters. Incarcerated people also provide labor when hurricanes hit by preparing sandbags and shelters before hurricanes reach land, and they assist with search-and-rescue and cleanup efforts in the wake of a storm’s destruction.
With summer heating up, wildfires burning and hurricane season in full swing, Prison Journalism Project compiled a collection of stories about the impact of extreme weather on prison life.
“The Stifling Heat in My Georgia Prison” by Edison Ariel Ortiz: “At my camp, only one unit has air conditioning. However, the architecture in the rest of the housing units is old and outdated, compounding the heat problem. … Even though the planet is suffering from climate change, Georgia still has not outfitted its prisons with proper cooling.”
“Seeing Beyond My Four Walls” by Damian Miguel Cantu: “While people may have lost their homes, property, and maybe even their lives to the wildfires, I remained disconnected from the real world all because my life revolved around the four walls containing me.”
“Hurricane Ian, From My Prison Window” by Eric Finley: “Power has flickered on and off all day, the water has been turned off and fire alarms have sounded constantly.”
“Hurricanes Hit My Home, and All I Can Do Is Sit Here” by Frank Morse: “It took weeks to discover that my family home in Port Charlotte also took a direct hit and became part of the sea of blue tarps nailed to roofs.”
“The Day the Blue Sky Disappeared” by Jessie Milo: “As I looked across the yard, I could no longer see the perimeter fence, and officers were scrambling to maintain visibility of the incarcerated people.”
“In Texas Prisons, The Summertime Heat Is Sickening” by Khaåliq Shakur: “The heat that we inmates in Texas prisons have to endure amounts to cruel and unusual punishment.”
“A View of My Cell on a Sweltering Summer Day” by Arnoldo Juarez: “Back in June, I was trying to stave off the heat during a sizzling weekend. Here is an annotated illustration of me in my cell.”
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.