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Texas claims spike in prison deaths isn't heat-related. Study says that can’t be true.

 Dominguez State Jail
Paul Flahive
Dominguez State Jail does not have air conditioning in its housing areas.

Texas prisons have seen, on average, nearly two people die each day this summer, as the state sees a significant jump in deaths.

A persistent, record setting and deadly heat wave has scorched the state during the same time period.

But Texas officials say they have yet to confirm a heat-related prison death so far this year. It has been more a decade since the last one. That’s despite the state not having air conditioning in two thirds of its prisons.

But studies have challenged the death findings.

Julie Skarha doesn’t buy that Texas hasn’t seen a heat-related death in 12 years. “I think the idea that there have been no heat related deaths since 2012 is just false,” she said.

Skarha wrote her doctoral dissertation on mortality rates in Texas prisons dealing with excessive heat. Her findings were published in the Journal of the American Medical Associationopen network in November.

It attributed 271 deaths between 2001-2019 likely to non air conditioned Texas prisons and heat. That’s 30 times higher than the national average.

The Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TCDJ) disputed the study’s findings and said it didn’t consider the listed cause of death, which county medical examiners provide rather than their department.

Skarha said there are often numerous causes to a death, and just because it wasn’t what was listed doesn’t mean heat didn’t play a large role.

“Heat exhaustion can be pretty mild, and heat strokes are pretty rare. And there's a lot of things that can happen in between that are related to heat and also cause death,” she said.

“The researchers did not get their information regarding deaths, air conditioning, etc. from TDCJ,” said Amanda Hernandez, director of communications for TDCJ.

Skarha said her information came from the Justice Department and likely originated with TDCJ.

Ultimately, Skarha’s work was peer-reviewed, and TPR confirmed that it used standard methods on the data.

Joseph Garza
Paul Flahive | TPR
Joseph Garza

Heat in Texas prisons

Data from the state showed that temperatures in Texas prisons are regularly over what is considered safe in county jails — 85 degrees — and increasingly sweltering at over 90 and 95 degrees for many hours a day.

Even for young, healthy adults, 95 degrees when humid can be dangerous. Extremely humid 95 degree days have often been called the limit of the young, healthy bodies when it tries to regulate internal temperatures.

But many in Texas prisons, like Joseph Garza, aren’t in great health and aren’t young.

“I'm 47. I have a hard time breathing. I wake up numb, sometimes. I put in for medical about this. I’m Just trying to keep out of people's way. Just lay there and sweat,” Garza said. He is an inmate at TDCJ’s Dominguez State Jail outside San Antonio.

The facility does not have air conditioning in its housing areas. About 60 men live in his dormitory style section.

Garza said he’s lucky — his bed is near the mounted, industrial fan.

People in more restrictive housing situations throughout the state have often complained to TPR about their access to cold showers this summer.

That isn’t an issue in Dominguez. Men in the unit also have ongoing access to showers.

“They just jump in and shower like 20 times, you know, trying to stay there,” Garza explained.

But he said it’s still too hot, and many walk around with heat rashes. Last month, state data showed there were only two days where the internal temperature measured under 90 degrees.

“I really feel, to be honest, like we're jerky. We're slowly being cooked,” he said.

Monthly data from the state showed how few days units without air conditioning had temperatures under 85 degrees last month, dropping to just a couple.

Advocates were also quick to point out the data limitations. The temperatures weren’t taken at the hottest part of the day inside prisons, and it didn’t include humidity data, which is vital to determining effects on human health.

According to some estimates, the facilities regularly reach well more than 110 degrees.

How heat impacts the body

People throughout Texas’ prisons describe waking up drenched in sweat, with it “pouring” off their bodies. This means their bodies aren’t cooling.

“That sweat is not evaporating,” said W. Larry Kenney, a physiologist. “When sweat is just dripping off your body, it represents wasteful loss of body fluid with no benefit in terms of cooling.

Kenney is the Noll Chair in Human Performance at Pennsylvania State University. He has extensively studied the limits of human tolerance to heat.

When we’re hot and sweating isn’t cooling us, our core temperatures rise, and our heart pumps harder, pushing blood to the skin to cool it. That puts a lot of strain on the organ. Our bodies become even more susceptible to these issues as we age.

“We've known for decades and decades that as we become older, we become less tolerant to the heat,” he said.

So while a young,a healthy person can handle a hot humid day of 90 or 95 — an older body is under exponential stress. When the heart is under intense strain and core temperatures continue to rise people die.

During heat waves, Kenney said, cardiovascular issues are the most likely reason people go to the emergency room.

“Cardiovascular strain, as part of this unrelenting heat, is a major issue,” he added.

Thirty-two people have suffered cardiac arrest, or heart attacks, in Texas prisons, according to state data, with many more being found unresponsive without explanation. But TDCJ said it has been a relatively stable number the past three years.

The change in crude mortality rate in Texas prisons from the mean of 2018-2019
David Pyrooz
The change in crude mortality rate in Texas prisons from the mean of 2018-2019

Spike in deaths

Texas prisons have seen a significant spike in deaths system-wide. A five-and-a-half year analysis of custodial death reports conducted by TPR shows an additional two people per 10,000 dying in Texas prisons this summer, compared to the summers of 2018-2019.

“It seems pretty abundantly clear to me that the mortality rates in the summer of 2023 are comparable to what we see in 2021 and 2022, if not worse, but especially it deviates strongly from what we would think of as business as usual,” said David Pyrooz, a criminology professor at the University of Colorado Boulder who studies prisons.

The 2018 and 2019 years were selected as the average because they predate the COVID-19 pandemic which affected many aspects of prisons nationwide, especially around staffing. Many TDCJ prisons still struggle to maintain and recruit staff and capacity at the institutions has dropped off as a result.

He said the data from TPR looks like some bad months during the pandemic…but not because of disease.

“Those numbers are much higher,” he said, “There is something taking place here. And whether it's personnel, whether it's access to medical resources, these are important things to find out.”

Is there a direct connection between the Texas heat and the spike this summer?

“It's tricky,” said Julie Skarha. There just isn’t enough data in custodial death reports to know for sure..

The state could begin taking temperature readings from men when they are discovered deceased, a practice they don’t do now. Elevated core temperatures are large indicators of heat-related death.

The state did not respond to whether it had considered implementing the practice.

Skarkra’s work has convinced her that the way Texas houses prisoners is untenable as climate change makes extreme heat days more likely.

“I think air conditioning is a requirement. It is essential for human health in these settings,” she said. “A 30-fold increase in heat-related mortality is absolutely ridiculous.”

Copyright 2023 Texas Public Radio. To see more, visit Texas Public Radio.

Paul Flahive is the technology and entrepreneurship reporter for Texas Public Radio. He has worked in public media across the country, from Iowa City and Chicago to Anchorage and San Antonio.
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