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Incarcerated People Remain Vulnerable to the Worst Ravages of a Warming World

Harsh conditions inside U.S. prisons and jails have led to growing concerns about the unsustainability and climate vulnerability of mass incarceration.

ByMattea Mrkusic and Daniel A. GrossNOVA NextNOVA Next
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A grid-style cell block | Photo credit: Bob Jagendorf / Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

In August 2017, Sherrard O. Williams sat in a sweltering prison cell and imagined how it would feel to escape the heat. “Out in the middle of nowhere, I’m wondering what it would feel like to have a gigantic shade tree towering over the John B. Connally Unit in Kenedy, TX,” Williams wrote in a letter to NOVA. He imagined the slow, cool breeze that might blow across the prison grounds.

Though Williams spends much of his time in a prison cell, he has often found himself at the mercy of the elements. He is serving a life sentence for being present at a murder when he was 15 years old; since then, he has achieved high school equivalency and served as a chapel mentor. Last year, he spent Hurricane Harvey locked in a cell where the electricity and plumbing failed. He stopped eating because he was unable to flush the toilet.

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Williams has seen men grow desperate as the temperature rises. Early in his incarceration, “inmates would walk around with soaked wet cloths [sic],” he wrote. “Others that was locked in a cell 23 hrs. of the day would flood their prison cell floors and lay down in the water.” Once, Williams experienced solitary confinement in the “devil’s den,” a brutally hot cell block that he could only leave to shower. “I could only sleep for minutes at a time & wake up in pools of my own sweat,” he wrote. “It radiated heat in the heart of the Connally Unit without any escape.”

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Sherrard O. Williams's letter to NOVA | Photo courtesy Daniel A. Gross

The summer of 2018, like many recent summers, was one of the hottest on record. Another deadly hurricane season, likely exacerbated by climate change, came to an end this fall. Most Americans can find refuge from the ravages of a warming world thanks to air conditioning and the freedom to relocate. But more than two million people (as of 2016) lack that freedom because they are locked in thousands of prisons, jails, and immigrant detention centers. Harsh conditions on the inside—which also affect hundreds of thousands of people who staff these facilities—have led to growing concerns about the unsustainability and climate vulnerability of mass incarceration.

“How many humans have to die before we look at a situation as being problematic?” Marc Garrett, who was previously housed in the Wallace Pack Unit in Texas, wrote to NOVA. He is 14 years into a life sentence for murder. “The conditions of confinement are, at a bare minimum, expected to be livable. Not Marriott or Hyatt Regency. Livable,” he says.

Recent research agrees with Garrett. Intense heat has been shown to inflict both physical and psychological suffering. “The success or failure of correctional adaptation efforts will be measured in human lives as well as public dollars,” wrote Daniel Holt, a legal scholar who authored a report titled Heat in U.S. Prisons and Jails. “Every death is a haunting, tragic occurrence.”

Intense heat has been shown to inflict both physical and psychological suffering.

The problem of rising temperatures amplifies the most pressing issues facing U.S. prisons and jails: chronically tight budgets, aging infrastructure, and the relative invisibility of incarcerated people, a disproportionate number of whom (in Texas, about two-thirds) are black or Latino. In a country that imprisons more of its people—especially racial minorities—than any country on Earth, this will not be an easy problem to untangle.

“An ongoing, systemic problem”

In the sweltering early hours of July 22, 2011, Larry Gene McCollum began to shake in his cell. When a fellow prisoner called for help, the responding officer thought that McCollum was having a seizure. McCollum, a 58-year-old taxi driver sentenced to 12 months for passing a bad check, had been recently transferred to Hutchins State Jail outside of Dallas. His new unit had no air conditioning, no fan, and no windows.

For each of the seven days that McCollum was incarcerated in Hutchins, temperature logs recorded at least five hours during which the outside temperatures exceeded 100 degrees Fahrenheit. On the eighth day, shortly after he was discovered convulsing in his cell, McCollum was transported to Parkland Hospital. His body temperature was measured at 109.4 degrees Fahrenheit.

McCollum, who had a wife and two grown children, died on July 28, 2011. The official cause of death was listed as hyperthermia.

There’s clear evidence that extreme heat causes serious health problems, especially for the incarcerated. In 2012, Jeff Edwards, a lawyer from Austin, Texas, took up a wrongful death case brought by the McCollum family. While taking depositions, Edwards discovered that the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) knew that 22 people had died due to heat exposure since 1998. “That’s when I really realized that this was an ongoing, systemic problem,” said Edwards.

Edwards decided to file a class action lawsuit on behalf of seven men at the Wallace Pack Unit, a minimum-security facility 300 miles south of Hutchins State Jail, which houses elderly and sick people in temperatures consistently above 90 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer. The arid climate of Texas has become more extreme in recent decades, with long droughts as well as severe hurricanes that roll in from the Gulf of Mexico.

Dr. Susi Vassallo, a clinical professor of emergency medicine at New York University, has studied the effects of heat exposure on prisoners across the country. “The vast majority of people who are dying during a heat wave are generally people who have a worsening of underlying conditions,” Vassallo says. She served as an expert witness in the case.

“The stress of responding to the temperatures is enough to push people over with their lung disease, their asthma, their diabetes,” Vassallo explains. At the time the class action lawsuit was filed, over half of the 1,450 inmates in Pack Unit had underlying health conditions. Many were over 65, the age at which the human central nervous system begins to naturally decline, elevating risks of illness or death from extreme heat.

In preparation for her testimony, Vassallo toured the Pack Unit with a group of experts and Keith P. Ellison, the federal judge in the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals who was presiding over the case. As they walked through the prison, Judge Ellison and Vassallo both began to sweat. One expert, she said, had to leave the tour because of health concerns from the heat.

“Standing in that cell… that’s a level of stifling I’ve never experienced.”

“They took one of the prisoners out from their cell, and I stood in that cell,” recalls Vassallo, who grew up in Texas. “Standing in that cell—when all you have is Plexiglas, a little bit of a window, and very tight mesh—you stand in that for 20 minutes, and even as a Texan used to the heat, that’s a level of stifling I’ve never experienced.”

Individuals with mental illness, who are disproportionately represented in America’s criminal justice system, are at particular risk from rising temperatures. “People with mental illness are four times more likely to die of heat related complications,” Vassallo says. Medications used to treat psychosis, depression, bipolar disorder, and anxiety can compromise the body’s way of maintaining a safe internal temperature. In Texas alone, 30,678 prisoners are on psychotropic medications, which limit the body’s ability to cool itself down by sweating and suppress the brain’s ability to perceive temperature changes—meaning the body won’t initiate compensatory behavioral changes, despite an individual feeling hotter.

More generally, cognitive function declines with exposure to extreme heat. In some cases, incarcerated people with severe mental disorders or cognitive impairments may have trouble exercising good judgment and carrying out typical behavioral adaptations to keep cool.

Medications designed to treat underlying conditions, such as the hypertension medicine hydrochlorothiazide, also disrupt temperature regulation in the body. Plaintiffs in the McCollum wrongful death lawsuit said that Larry McCollum, who had weight-related health issues, was prescribed hydrochlorothiazide to treat his hypertension days before he died.

The prison system has a responsibility to protect the health of people in its care, Vassallo suggests. “Even when [the criminal justice system] is serving its purpose, lawfully and fairly, the people who are going to prison—they have the right to enter society with their health intact,” she says.

In July 2017, Judge Ellison called for emergency steps to protect the Pack Unit plaintiffs. High cell temperatures in the prison, he said, amounted to cruel and unusual punishment. Six months later, in a settlement, TDCJ agreed to air condition the prison and offer medical accommodations to its population.

“I never dreamt we’d get the Pack Unit air-conditioned,” the judge said at the time. A TDCJ spokesperson told NOVA, “Offenders who have been found medically to be at the highest risk have already been moved to existing beds in air conditioned facilities.”

Still, not everyone viewed the settlement as a triumph. Jeffery Adams, a plaintiff who was deemed heat-sensitive because of medical conditions, was disappointed that the changes would not take effect in the rest of Texas, let alone the rest of the country.

“I don’t like the way this issue is ending in the Fifth Circuit,” wrote Adams, who is serving 15 years for robbery with a deadly weapon. “What about the other 30,000 inmates on prison units throughout the state who are in the same danger?”

The price of heat-related trauma

Across the planet, temperatures are already soaring due to climate change.

“We don’t have to talk about 50 years from now,” says Dr. Marshall Shepherd, a leading international climate expert and the 2013 President of the American Meteorological Society. “The heat waves we’re seeing around the globe—in India, in Europe—they already have the DNA of climate change in them.”

Looking ahead, Shepherd says, “We’re going to see more intense and frequent heat waves.” Currently, 30 percent of the world’s population experiences at least 20 days per year when the temperature crosses a “deadly” threshold. But according to a study in the journal Nature Climate Change, if greenhouse gas emissions continue at current rates, this percentage is projected to climb to 74 percent of the global population by 2100.

“Imagine being in a prison environment under a heatwave that’s been lingering for a week or two, and the nighttime temperatures aren’t getting too cool,” said Shepherd. “That’s when you start seeing heat-related trauma.”

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Besides heat, prisoners face risks from intensifying hurricanes, Shepherd says. “Some of these prisons aren’t built to withstand a direct hit from a Category 4 hurricane,” he added. During recent severe storms, such as Hurricanes Michael and Harvey, some prisoners reported failing electrical locks that left them trapped in cells.

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The guard tower at a prison unit in Rosharon, Texas was submerged by water from the flooded Brazos River during the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. Photo credit: AP Photo/Charlie Riedel

Daniel Holt, the legal scholar who has studied heat in prisons, says that climate has not historically been a consideration in prison design. “When correctional facilities were built, the number one consideration was security. Everything else took the back seat.”

Dipping into public funds to adapt to a future of intensifying heat waves and hurricanes, noted Holt, is often not the state’s priority. “Correctional officials, correctional administrators, and correctional committees of state legislatures are fundamentally interested in today,” said Daniel Holt. “They’re not really thinking long-term, particularly when they’ve got financial constraints.”

Holt thinks the efforts to provide nationwide cooling systems to prisoners will be piecemeal. “The nature of the correctional system in this country is that it’s divided into literally thousands of jurisdictions,” he said. “Almost every county has its own correctional [institution], and at least its own jail.”

Despite this structural obstacle, Holt remains optimistic. “What happened in Texas is going to spark further litigation. It’s going to make further litigation easier for plaintiffs, because [now] there’s precedent.”

The price tag of litigation might encourage officials to simply pay for air conditioning. “The State of Texas spent $7 million fighting litigation, and it’s going to cost them $4 million to air-condition the prison, so it’s exactly the opposite of what makes sense economically,” he said.

“We’re going to see more deaths,” Holt said. “Knowing that’s on the horizon—it’s maddening.”

Giving prisoners a voice

Tackling extreme heat in prisons will require policy changes—but many states deny voting rights to people who are currently incarcerated for felonies. This amounts to millions of people across the U.S. In most places, voting rights are restored when people serve sentences, probation, and parole. But in a select few states, disenfranchisement follows people for life.

Cyril Walrond, who is incarcerated at Stafford Creek Corrections Center in Washington State, told NOVA that he never cared about the environment as a kid. He grew up in urban Tacoma, and often witnessed extreme poverty and violence. “As a youth coming up, where I came from, it was like—why would I care about a tree, or somebody wearing fur, when I have friends being killed in the neighborhood that I’m coming from?”

Now, Walrond has a different view—in part because he’s involved in sustainability projects that function as a step toward rehabilitation. While serving a long sentence for murder, he became an instructor in a program called Roots of Success. It’s part of the Sustainability in Prisons Project from Evergreen State College, which brings composting, gardening, and wildlife conservation projects inside prison walls. Given that climate change is already harming the most vulnerable, the Sustainability in Prisons Project is just one way that organizations are trying to involve these populations.

The project’s director, Kelli Bush, says that as prisons try to adapt to a changing climate, they must consider their environmental impact. “The key challenge to prison sustainability is high incarceration rates,” she said. A smaller prison population would shrink the footprint of incarceration, and in areas of climate vulnerability, it would put fewer people in harm’s way.

Joshua Hieronymus, who is also serving time in Stafford Creek, recalled a time when the prison system gave him almost no connection with nature, “except maybe the grass on the yard.” But the prison planted a garden for people serving life sentences, and in recent years, the garden has become accessible to other prisoners, like him. “I can’t even put into words how much of a weight was lifted off me, just being able to get my hands in the dirt,” Hieronymus said.

Recently, Walrond and Hieronymus attended a symposium on climate change, organized inside the prison by the Sustainability in Prisons Project. These days, Walrond finds himself disturbed by the unseasonably warm weather in Washington. He believes his own community will learn to care about climate change only when it gains more access to nature and wildlife.

Hieronymus, meanwhile, dreams of getting out and starting a farm. “I’ve got three kids, so I think about the future, and what that entails for them,” he said. “In here, there's not a lot we can do. But we try to do what we can.”