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“Hellholes”: Heat Waves Worsen Conditions in Prisons with No Air Conditioning, Understaffing

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As tens of millions of people in the United States live under heat alerts this summer, we look at conditions faced by those in prisons and jails with poor cooling systems and lack of access to running water. “Although heat has been an ongoing issue in Texas, this year it’s exacerbated by a staffing crisis that’s been years in the making,” says Keri Blakinger, the first formerly incarcerated reporter for The Marshall Project. “This is a drastically underappreciated problem,” adds Dr. Homer Venters, the former chief medical officer for New York City’s Correctional Health Services.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

As tens of millions in the United States live under heat alerts this week, we look at conditions faced by those in prisons and jails. Here in New York, two city councilmembers made an unannounced visit Monday to the Rikers Island prison complex and called it a “hellhole.” Tiffany Cabán’s district includes Rikers, and in a statement she described, quote, “New Yorker after New Yorker languishing in Intake for day after day with no air conditioning in the middle of a severe heatwave … and generally a persistent wave of what in the outside world would be seen as an emergency taking a week or two to address inside the facility.”

In the Pacific Northwest, a heat wave pushed temperatures in some areas above 110 degrees Fahrenheit. This is an immigrant held at the Northwest Detention Center, run by the private prison company GEO Group, in Tacoma, Washington, speaking to Maru Mora Villalpando of the immigration justice group La Resistencia.

IMMIGRANT DETAINEE: [translated] Right now it feels very hot. And the guards don’t want to switch the hours we go out to the yard. They take us out at 2:00, noon, 1:00, during the times when it’s extremely hot. … There is no shade, and they leave us out there for an hour.

MARU MORA VILLALPANDO: [translated] And when you go back inside, do the guards give you water?

IMMIGRANT DETAINEE: [translated] No, not at all.

MARU MORA VILLALPANDO: [translated] What if you ask them for water?

IMMIGRANT DETAINEE: [translated] There’s a water fountain outside, but the water comes out very hot. If we want to take a shower or freshen up, the water in the bathrooms and the shower comes out boiling hot.

AMY GOODMAN: This comes as a new report by the Texas Prisons Community Advocates and the Hazard Reduction and Recovery Center at Texas A&M University finds 13 states do not have universal air conditioning in state prisons. This includes Texas, where most prisons are not fully air-conditioned. One Texas prisoner described the environment of extreme heat and the COVID-19 pandemic as a “living hell.”

For more, we’re joined from Austin, Texas, by Keri Blakinger, investigative reporter based in Texas covering criminal justice and injustice for The Marshall Project, where she’s their first formerly incarcerated reporter. We just interviewed her on her new memoir called Corrections in Ink. And she’s been documenting conditions during this latest heat wave.

Welcome back to Democracy Now!, Keri. What have you found?

KERI BLAKINGER: One of the things that was different this year is that, first of all, Texas prisons are far more understaffed than they have been in the past, so some of the basic things that would be done to mitigate the heat in past years aren’t available necessarily this year. There aren’t necessarily enough staff on hand to be letting people out for showers as much or letting them outdoors as much or, you know, doing things like providing ice and things like that. So, although heat has been an ongoing issue in Texas, this year it’s exacerbated by a staffing crisis that’s been years in the making.

AMY GOODMAN: So, if you can talk about what that means, both when you don’t have enough staff — and give us examples in different prisons. I mean, we’re not talking about someone who can go take a cold shower whenever they want to. We’re not talking about someone who can move from, what, three-digit temperatures, over a 100-degree temperature, to a cooler place. These are incarcerated people.

KERI BLAKINGER: Right. And, you know, they’re stuck in their cells. And it’s been bad enough that this year I’ve actually had staff reaching out to me, giving me tips that — their tip is simply that they’re concerned about the prisoners. There was one who called me the other day and said that, you know, she had this hot tip for me. And her tip was “it’s inhumane.” Like, that was it. She just wanted to say it was inhumane, the way that the prisoners are being stuck in these conditions.

And I know that when I’m asked about this a lot of times, I’ll have people say, “Oh, well, there’s a lot of schools that aren’t air-conditioned.” And obviously, that’s significantly different. And I think that when people think about incarcerated people in the context of heat, a lot of people like to just sort blow that off as if it’s a frill, some extra offering, to give people air conditioning. But it is deadly. Twenty-three people have been documented to have died in Texas prisons since 1998 due to heat-related illnesses. And that’s almost certainly an undercount.

AMY GOODMAN: You tweeted this week about a facility in Gatesville, Texas, where the water went out for at least two days, while the temperature, the air temperature, was over 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Talk about this.

KERI BLAKINGER: Yeah, sure. A lot of our prisons are aging, and the infrastructure is aging, and some of them are in cities that don’t have great infrastructure to begin with. So it’s not uncommon for water to be going out in these facilities. But it’s alarming when it happens during such a heat wave.

And in Gatesville, the water — the city had a water main problem, and so one of the prisons, Hughes Unit, ended up with no water for about two days. And TDCJ, the Texas prison system, brought in water tankers and portable toilets and water. But this happens repeatedly. And every time that happens, afterwards, you know, we hear stories from incarcerated people about how they weren’t able to actually get access to enough water, or they weren’t actually being let out to use the toilets. So, you know, this is a solution that’s certainly better than nothing but has still historically been problematic.

And, you know, the other piece of it, when you have a city water outage like that, is that there’s usually a boil water notice during or after. And the other units in Gatesville, because there are several prisons in Gatesville, all had boil water notices, but no means to boil water.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to bring in our other guest, Dr. Homer Venters, who is a physician, former chief medical officer for New York City’s Correctional Health Services. In a moment, we’re going to talk about monkeypox. But your response, as you travel this country and investigate prisons, on this issue of the heat wave?

DR. HOMER VENTERS: Yeah, I think — first of all, thank you for having me. Thrilled to be on with both of you.

This is a drastically underappreciated problem. And one of the most basic tools, which is to understand who are the heat-sensitive people who are in a jail or a prison or detention center, is almost never undertaken. So, when it gets over 85 degrees in a living space, the risk of death and serious illness from that high heat condition is different. But the medical staff, the medical services in these places know who are the people that are more likely to die or get sick. And they almost never identify people as being heat sensitive and focus on making sure they are OK, get them into air-conditioned settings. So, this is a problem all over the country as more and more places that historically don’t have high heat days do and aren’t prepared to take the mitigation efforts, on top of the long-standing problems in places that Keri was just talking about.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank Keri Blakinger for being with us. Again, her new book is called Corrections in Ink. She’s the first formerly incarcerated reporter at The Marshall Project.

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Next story from this daily show

Prison Health Expert Warns Monkeypox Could “Dramatically Increase” Behind Bars, Calls for CDC Action

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