It's 110 degrees in Texas prisons. Is this a human rights violation? - Rattling the Bars

Prisoners are on the front lines of climate crises of every type. Heat waves can be especially dangerous for incarcerated people, particularly in prisons that lack proper air conditioning. In Texas, this summer’s heat wave has seen temperatures inside some prisons reach as high as 110 degrees Fahrenheit. A recent survey by Texas A&M University’s Hazard Reduction and Recovery Center, as well as the Texas Prisons Community Advocates group, paints a picture of immense human suffering caused by environmental catastrophe and inaction by authorities. More than 6,000 heat-related grievances were filed in Texas prisons between September 2019 and August 2020. With just 2/3 of the state’s prisoners in possession of their own cup to drink water with, thousands of incarcerated people are being left to languish in deadly temperatures without air conditioning or easy access to water. On this episode of Rattling the Bars, Monique Welch of the Houston Chronicle appears to discuss A&M’s research on the conditions of Texas’ sweltering prisons.

Monique Welch is an engagement reporter for the Houston Chronicle. Monique holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Communications Media Studies from Goucher College.

Studio/Post-Production: Cameron Granadino


Transcript

Mansa Musa:  Welcome to this edition of Rattling the Bars. I’m Mansa Musa, co-hosting with Eddie Conway. Next month will be August. And before we get started with our interview, we just want to acknowledge that next month we’ll be highlighting a lot of the situations and conditions and developments in political prisons and prison of war cases throughout the United States of America. Today, we’ll be talking about one of the most inhumane things that exists within the prison-industrial complex: heat, and how institutions deal with heat and heat-type environments, specifically when it’s 110 degrees outside, or when it’s 90 degrees outside, in most cases in prison, it’s 110 or 115. And in most reported cases, 140.

So today we have a situation where in the Texas prison system, the temperature reached 110 degrees. Now, this is not a new phenomenon for Texas, heat and the fact that it exists. And what also isn’t new is the response. But this time with the outlandish heat and with the heat wave, Texas prisoners have been subjected to the most cruel and unusual punishment. Here to talk about this is Monique Welch, who wrote an article on this very thing for the Houston Chronicle.

Welcome, Monique.

Monique Welch:  Thank you. Thank you so much for having me.

Mansa Musa:  Tell our audience a little bit about yourself.

Monique Welch:  I started with the Houston Chronicle not too long ago, just marked a year. Again, I moved to Houston in September of last year, right around Labor Day. So I’m really still getting my feet wet with Texas and Houston and this very topic, the heat that we’re here to discuss today. So a lot of it is really fresh on my mind as a new Houstonian. But I started, I’m originally from Baltimore, Maryland, went to Goucher College there, studied communications and journalism, and just kind of worked my way up with a number of different internships. And then I moved to Tampa, Florida, where I really got started in journalism. I worked at the Tampa Bay Times in a number of different positions. And recently, now I’m here at the Houston Chronicle.

Mansa Musa:  Okay.

Monique Welch:  That’s a little bit about me.

Mansa Musa:  And you wrote an article entitled that temperatures inside Texas prison reach 110 degrees. And just going back on what you just said, you just came down in this environment, and you just started getting into reporting. Why would you take up this particular news report? Why would you focus your attention on this and go in this area in particular? When we talk about prison and we talk about conditions in prison, people have a tendency to do a comparative analysis, like well, we don’t have this in society, so why would we give them that? Why did you choose this particular area to focus your attention on?

Monique Welch:  Absolutely. One, just being a new Houstonian, heat is a constant conversation starter. It’s what everyone’s talking about. It’s summertime. Houston is beautiful, but a lot of times you don’t want to be outside just because it’s so hot. But someone like me, I have the luxury of deciding whether I want to be in the heat or not. I can stay in my house all day long and enjoy my 75 degree thermostat. But not all inmates, as we see in this report, have that same luxury. When I got word of the study, it was alarming. It was a new thing for me, not having that much knowledge and understanding that this was going on, so I was really intrigued and wanted to learn more about this issue and some of the failures that were being alleged in this report. So it really was intriguing.

I’m a true believer that, no matter what you do in this life, we’re all human, so you’re deserving of certain conditions. I was really shocked. I think it was the overall shock factor for me. That was just like, wait a minute, this is seriously going on? So it made me want to dig into it a little more.

Mansa Musa:  And the report you’re speaking of, was it University of Texas?

Monique Welch:  It’s Texas A&M University.

Mansa Musa:  Texas A&M University went and did a study or did a report for legislation on the conditions of prisons and the heat, the fact that heat has on the living condition in prisons, is that the study you’re talking about?

Monique Welch:  Yes, exactly.

So just to break down the study, they recently released the study. They’ve been researching this for two years. Started in 2018, and then in 2020 they concluded their research. And by “they” I’m talking about scholars within their hazard reduction and recovery center. So a specific department dedicated to studying these issues and how certain things impact vulnerable communities. So that’s what their mission and focus is. So they spent two years analyzing this issue, serving well over 300 inmates. And in the actual report, it’s a lengthy report. It details a number of quotes and direct quotes from prisoners that ultimately are really in fear of dying from heat. That was the theme. And when we’re talking about dying from heat, we’re talking specifically about heat stroke, heat exhaustion, like heat-related illnesses that could lead to death. That is the overall fear that they reported.

Mansa Musa:  And this report was given to the state legislators, am I correct?

Monique Welch:  Yes. A couple weeks ago they did actually report their findings to the House. I didn’t get clarification. I did go back and ask to see, okay, what came of that? What was the reaction? That part is still unclear, so I’m probably going to follow up again, just to keep tabs on this issue and see, okay, what did it ruffle any feathers, to gauge that overall reaction. So that part I’m not sure of. But I do know that their intent with this research was to bring light and really speak for a vulnerable community that can’t speak for themselves. And take this to lawmakers, the people who have the power to do something about it.

Mansa Musa:  As I was researching this and looking at it, and I was… A couple of days ago, I was reminiscing on being released from prison. I had served 48 years in prison prior to being released. When I was coming out and it was so hot, and I reflected on how it was and the environments that I was in. It’d be so hot that the walls would be sweating, but at no time during the entire time I’ve been incarcerated did the temperatures in the units reach 110 degrees. The prisons where the most inhumane suffering took place is in the more modernized or less modernized, if you know?

Monique Welch:  Yeah. That’s a good point. So just getting to the 23 – I just want to clarify. the 23 heat-related deaths, that was since 1998. So I don’t want to get it confused, that it was just in one year. That was decades. And while some might say, oh, that doesn’t sound like an overwhelming number, many will argue that one is too many.

And so you’re absolutely correct. There were a lot of heat mitigating policies put in place, mainly because of advocacy and court orders that brought it to light. So with that being said, the department, in Texas… Also let me just run down. The Texas Department of Criminal Justice, they operate 100 prisons. And so of those 100 facilities, 31 are completely air conditioned. They’re just 31%.

55 they reported are partly air conditioned, and 14 have no AC. Just want to run those facts out there. And so when a lot of these things were taking place, a lot of the advocacy and the court order wasn’t just calling out the agency for some of their policies, they did work to improve a lot of those things. They didn’t rush to bring in air conditioning, however. A lot of their mitigating policies were bringing in more fans and circulating them throughout the prisons, introducing cooled beds, and just allowing for access to water, ice, etc. And a number of different things that a spokesperson outlined to me, and something that research is criticized in the report as, basically, not enough. And saying that by doing so, they are simply mitigating the impacts of heat, but not actually mitigating the heat.

So that was one thing that stood out to me. And I thought it was really interesting. They have made significant improvements over the years. You cannot deny that. But how effective long-term, not just short-term, how effective long-term are those policies and procedures to inmates’ overall health? Their studies showed that another thing we’re relating to the deaths, the 23 deaths, a lot of those deaths, they pointed out, were hard to tie directly to heat.

So they gave an example. One example was someone who died from a heart attack. And while they died from a heart attack, they couldn’t pinpoint that… They basically said that heat exhaustion. It could have [crosstalk]

Mansa Musa:  [crosstalk] With his heart.

Monique Welch:  The report argues that the heat exacerbates a lot of these, sometimes preexisting, sometimes they don’t have these medical conditions at all, but it exacerbates them. Conditions that they perhaps would not have had, had they been in less hazardous conditions.

Mansa Musa:  Let’s dial down on what you said earlier, that the amount of people that died over a period of time. By your own recognition and the state’s, this has been going on forever. Texas has seasons that are hot. My question in your research, have they ever considered, because you just spoke on how they said that the study said they’re not trying to eradicate the problem. They’re just trying to mitigate it to an extent where it’s more acceptable.

Monique Welch:  Less of an impact. Yes.

Mansa Musa:  And less of an impact. But in terms of long-term, in your study, has the state even considered any type of long-term solution to this problem? Because heat is going to come today, heat is going to come next year, and the heat is going to come. If the prison is not providing the necessary equipment and environment, then people are going to suffer, people are going to die, people are going to be traumatized. In your study, have you seen them taking any direction in terms of long-term eradication of this problem within the prison system there?

Monique Welch:  That’s a great question. It’s a question that I asked the state directly, saying, are there long-term plans? Short-term or long-term, to mitigate the heat in the way that means directly installing air conditioning in all prisons? We’re talking 100 here, so 31 are already fully air conditioned. So my question directly was are there plans, short-term or long-term, to install air conditioning in the remaining prisons? And basically they point to a lack of funding as the main issue that those prisons are not fully air conditioned. And in this study cites this fact as well, this was I believe dating back to 2017, around the time of litigation against the agency. But they basically said that it would cost $1 billion to do so across all units. And then also said that it would be like an additional $140 million annually that they would have to pay to basically upkeep these facilities.

And the utility maintenance, that type of thing. We all know that AC costs money. It costs thousands of dollars to repair. So when you think of the size and the population of a prison, one, just how large they are, to their point, it would be an expensive feat for them. We don’t know exactly how much that would cost. So that part is up in the air. But we know this will easily cost the state millions and millions of dollars, but they point to it as being difficult to obtain such funding.

Mansa Musa:  We recognize that, in terms of the prison-industrial complex and these hundred prisons that we’re speaking of, most of these prisons are in rural Texas. They’re in rural Texas. They are the infrastructure for that community. So the fact that you people are saying that it would cost so much money. If you close the prisons, then you would have a ghost town where these people are living off the inhumane treatment of these prisoners. So that argument that they make as far as how much money it costs, that’s the argument they make in every situation when it comes to providing treatment and humanity to people that are constantly…

But answer this here. From your research, what was the guards’ position in some of these environments where they’re not air conditioned and they have to, no matter where they can go and get some air relief, they have to go back into hot units where they have to oversee the security. In your research or in this study, did they mention anything about the prison guards’ attitude towards some of these more decadent environments that exist, or outdated prison environments that exist?

Monique Welch:  That’s a good question. It didn’t largely focus on the guards and staff and security. It did basically talk about how they have inadequate staffing and even reduced staffing, making it thus harder to maintain some of their policies and procedures. Researchers argue that perhaps installing air conditioning would help ease that burden of being inadequately staffed. So they did communicate it in a way that puts a lot of pressure on guards to do all the things you mention, and then make sure that people are receiving access to water and ice and taking that relief, but then also protecting yourself. So it definitely communicated that it added unnecessary stress on top of that.

Mansa Musa:  My own experience being incarcerated and some of the prisons when I went in the ’70s, and all the prisons that I was in during that period didn’t have any air conditioning, had a fan system, three fans might have been for a cell block that housed over 500 people. And in the summertime when it got real hot, the officers could go into an area where it might have been air, or it might have been more ventilation. But they had to come out and come on them [inaudible], and you could see them walk around with their… They were supposed to have their ties on, they got their shirts buttoned down. Pretty much they were going through the same thing we were going through in terms of the heat and heat exhaustion.

And it took all the way until their union got involved and got more relief for them, but then getting relief for them it ultimately trickled down to us. But talk about, in the study and in your own research, the attitude of a lot of the prisoners. Because you spoke about their fear of dying. Speak on this. Speak on the overall impact it has on the prison population, which is relatively large. I think Texas has either the third largest prison population in the country behind New York and California, or is number one. It’s in the top three.

Monique Welch:  It’s definitely up there. I don’t know the exact numbers, but there is a huge prison population in Texas. But just reading through a number of their stories, experiences, they were really graphic and really [inaudible]. Many express experiencing dizziness, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, difficulty breathing. One woman said she couldn’t eat. She couldn’t gain weight, muscle cramps, leg cramps, just a laundry list of symptoms. Many, many, many. I think almost the majority of the responses that I read and the feedback I read reported having passed out multiple times, or even reporting at least one heat-related illness. And a lot of times many also said that – They’re called grievances. Reporting such grievances did nothing and was essentially a waste of time. So some even said that when they passed out, they didn’t receive medical attention.

One I’ll never forget. One inmate actually said that they were on their 20th time from passing out and suffering from heat exhaustion. 20 times. They didn’t specify how long they had been incarcerated or how long they’ve been there. So those types of details, I didn’t see anything like that. But again, we’re talking, Texas has been hot for decades. And it has been on an upward trend historically since the ’80s, and this summer alone we’ve been recording record breaking heat numbers.

The previous record set was back in 2009 for having dozens of days consistently over 100 degrees or higher. So we’re not talking normal summer heat, 80s, 90s. And in fact, when a federal judge did basically accuse the TDCJ and the lawsuit, which was in 2017 and 2019 timeframe, they basically ruled, I think it was a prison in Beaumont, but they basically were transferring inmates to a different unit because temperatures exceeded 90 degrees. And so we’re talking 110 here. And one even was like 149. That was the highest that was reported in this study. That one prison got up to 149 degrees. So if they were regulating and issuing sanctions for 90 degrees and above, and they are regularly, consistently, hitting 110. I mean, you think about it. They’re doing it at 90, and there are units and inmates suffering at 100 and above.

Mansa Musa:  Yeah, I know this. That’s the height of inhumanity. Talk about the relief. Did the courts order them to start releasing prisoners who, as a result of being in these most inhumane living conditions, or was that taken into account, or was anything being done to minimize the amount of time a person stayed in prison? Was anything being done to expedite their release, to your knowledge?

Monique Welch:  To my knowledge, no, I didn’t see anything in this report specifically about that. In the 29 cases, it mainly just resulted in further pressure on the government agency on TDCJ. They just paid millions to rectify. They started improving. I didn’t see any direct benefits to the inmates as far as their prison sentence. It was largely more accountability on the agency to do things, to improve. Again, temporarily moving inmates to other units, but then you’re dealing with issues of overcrowding and other things. So it still is kind of one problem just makes another. So that’s another factor as well.

Mansa Musa:  Monique, talk about through prisoners… I know when I was incarcerated, we had jobs, and a lot of times some of our jobs worked outside. Are the prisons still allowing prisoners to work in the face of COVID, and if so, are prisoners working outside in this heat?

Monique Welch:  Yes. Numerous inmates reported that was the main job. Working in the fields, working outside. So when you’re working in temperatures of 100 degrees plus and then you come inside, normally, myself, you come indoors, you would get relief. You’d have a cool air system. But when you’re an inmate and you come back to the unit and it’s the same temperature, if not hotter, when do you get the relief? And so a lot of inmates are reporting that and saying that it only made it worse. And then we talked about the conditions about the access to cups and ice and water, and even going deeper into that site.

Some of the inmates even said the conditions of the communal areas, where they had to go to get the water, typically like ice coolers and things of that nature. A lot said they were dirty, a lot said they were unsanitized with food, trash, hair, you name it, all types of stuff, just because they weren’t regularly being maintained and cleaned. Yes, there’s access to it. But just how clean and treated is that water? So that was another thing that inmates reported about, yes, there’s water, but is it really clean? It isn’t necessarily clean and healthy for you.

Mansa Musa:  And when this report came in effect and the [inaudible] that it’s taken and the study, but then we have COVID, we interject COVID into this equation of the heat. What did the report and what did your study come up with in terms of the relation between the heat, the conditions, and COVID?

Monique Welch:  Oh my goodness. I mean, I think, honestly, I wouldn’t be surprised if this is something they’re still studying, just as we are still in a pandemic. But for the duration of this study, it was from 2018 to 2020. And the report focuses heavily on COVID. I think that might have taken up at least a couple of pages. And the effect that when you add COVID symptoms and heat, how it was much harder for inmates to ward off the disease and to fight it without air conditioning. Air conditioning typically helps reduce a lot of diseases, illnesses, et cetera. COVID is a disease that was not exempt from that. And so then you have that, and then you take into account the number of lockdowns that state prisons across the board were seen to implement COVID protocols.

There was a tremendous amount of inmates – And I’m sure you’ve heard the reports – Of inmates dying from COVID. So much so that a lot of the prisons went on lockdowns and they started to restrict the access to the communal areas where the coolers to ice and water are. And of course they did that to social distance. They didn’t want inmates to be on top of each other and crowded, especially those who were suffering from symptoms, because it was so easily widespread in that type of environment. So when you’re stripping that access to one of your heat-mitigating policies, it further lessens the options that inmates have to remain cool or attempt to remain cool.

Mansa Musa:  On this last question, let’s talk about, as far as the prisoners’ families and the advocacy groups in your research, what are they doing in terms of keeping the Texas Department of Corrections’ feet to the fire, for lack of a better word? [inaudible]

Monique Welch:  Well, doing this study alone and keeping the pressure on for two years. Sometimes when you do research and as soon as you find one nugget, you want to release it. But I think the beauty of this is that they stayed the course for two years to get a pretty decent sample size to represent the overall living conditions. Again, we’re still talking with a small sample though, 300 inmates. But still, when you spend a lot of time and you survey these inmates, it puts pressure on lawmakers, of course, but it also catches the attention of media professionals like myself. The study is available publicly, so I can share it if you want. You can share it with your audience to read the full report, to see firsthand accounts, to see the different heat mitigating policies and procedures that the department outlines, and to basically see the responses to how they are working to approve those conditions.

We talked about the access to ice and water and a cup. And one of the most shocking things to me that I found is that the department, they’re supposed to… So in order to get a cup, basically, you have to have money, and you have to have commissary money to do so. So if you think about it, what happens to those who don’t have commissary money, or maybe they don’t have the help of a friend or a family member to have commissary money to afford a cup? Then what happens to them? So per policy, TDCJ, they are required to provide those who cannot afford a cup. They are required per their policy to provide a cup. But in this report, I think it was like a quarter or most, many inmates reported not having one or not being provided a cup.

Mansa Musa:  And that’s the part of the prison-industrial complex and mass incarceration that people don’t really recognize is there. People that are incarcerated don’t have a lot of money, and they don’t have the ability to obtain the basic necessities such as a cup, toothbrush, toothpaste. So a lot of that time, they rely on the system, which, [inaudible] system had what they called the inmate welfare fund. But, well, you got the last word on it. What do you want the Rattling the Bars viewers and listeners to take you away from this report and this article and this study that you enlightened us with most eloquently.

Monique Welch:  Thank you. I think it’s just being aware of the state of our world, the state of our prisons. We’re all humans, right? And knowing what is happening and the experiences that many inmates are reporting, in our backyard a lot of times. Or you even described the prison in Baltimore, Maryland, right downtown in the city. In Texas they’re not really that close, as you mentioned, but just taking notice of some of the conditions, because it’s… Anybody at any time, this could be your family member. This could be your friend. This could be anyone you know suffering from these conditions.

And I think that’s why it strikes a nerve, because you can put yourself in anyone’s shoes, whether you’re an inmate. No matter what the crime. With this story, I really wanted to inform the public of the issues going on that researchers say are systemic. I wanted to inform readers of that and put it in their hands, let them choose, okay, what am I going to do with this information? Would this encourage me to go to my local council member or city Congressman? What will this spark? Will it spark you to do something about it, or continue having conversations in your networks, community organizations, to keep talking about it. And that’s really what we’re trying to achieve here.

Mansa Musa:  There you have it. The real news from Monique, the Houston Chronicle reporter who told us about and reported on the unbearable inhumane conditions in the prison-industrial complex in Texas. We are all human, as she said, and we should be treated as such. We have basic human rights that say we have a right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It’s supposed to be our inalienable right. But we see in Texas, we don’t have a right to a cup.

Thank you, Monique. Thank you very much for this most enlightening conversation and reporting. We look forward to getting a copy of that report and sharing it with our viewers and listeners. Thank you very much.

Monique Welch:  Absolutely. Thanks so much for having me. It’s been a pleasure.

Mansa Musa

Mansa Musa, also known as Charles Hopkins, is a 70-year-old social activist and former Black Panther. He was released from prison on December 5, 2019, after serving 48 years, nine months, 5 days, 16 hours, 10 minutes. He co-hosts the TRNN original show Rattling the Bars.