Amid record heat, and prisoners’ reports of deaths, lying in vomit, and using toilet water to cool their bodies in cells that are not air-conditioned, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice announced Sept. 6 its decision to lock down every prison in the state.
What does a lockdown mean? It means solitary confinement or something close to it for the 95,000 people in Texas prisons that lack air-conditioning.
While Texas prison units go into lockdown at least twice a year at different times, a systemwide lockdown is rare, a TDCJ spokeswoman told the Associated Press. The United Nations would prefer such conditions never exist: The international organization recognizes solitary confinement for more than 15 consecutive days as torture. And in Texas prisons, this near-24/7 confinement is happening in cells where temperatures rise to 120 and higher.
Prisoners are almost certainly dying in these conditions – more than 150 inmates have died this summer. The TDCJ denies any heat-related deaths since 2011, despite family members of some of the deceased saying they are sure heat was the cause of their loved one’s death. Last month, we reported how Tona Southards Naranjo, mother of Jon Anthony Southards, was told that his death at the Estelle Unit on June 28 was not heat-related. She viewed her son’s body after his death and saw a heat rash “from the top of his head to the backs of his knees.”
Now in lockdown, prisoners’ access to showers has been reduced to three times a week, a TDCJ spokesperson told the Chronicle. In announcing the lockdown, TDCJ claimed that it was the department’s response to an increase in drug discoveries in prisons over the last five years. They said they’d be executing thorough searches of inmates, and limiting prisoners’ “contact with those outside the prison.”
“The thing that bothers me the most is it’s happening with the heat,” said Amite Dominick of Texas Prisons Community Advocates. “Why did they have to do this now? Couldn’t they have waited a few weeks?” In fact, the first two days of the lockdown were so hot across Texas that both days ERCOT warned of potential blackouts amid record energy demand.
Dominick said she can’t help but feel that the move is retaliatory, after she and dozens of other advocates and family members spoke during the public comment portion of TDCJ’s annual conference in Galveston two weeks ago. “We had a historic event – for the first time in my 15 years of doing this, and maybe the first time ever – mothers and wives spoke to the board and told them straight-up what’s happening behind those walls. And now, two weeks later, there’s a systemwide lockdown.”
TDCJ initially declined to respond to the Chronicle’s questions about the timing of this lockdown, given the extreme heat. When pressed, a TDCJ spokesperson said the system “experienced a sudden escalation of violent episodes including 5 inmate-on-inmate homicides between August 30 and September 5.” The TDCJ has refused to provide data that would demonstrate whether these episodes actually amounted to a unique escalation. They did provide a chart demonstrating an increase in drug discoveries from 2022 to 2023.
As for cooling measures, the TDCJ said officers will continue to hand out cold water. In addition, cool showers “for heat mitigation purposes” and respite – time spent sitting on the floor in an air-conditioned room in the prison – are both available “upon request.” But it’s unclear when inmates will be able to make such requests. TDCJ did not answer questions asking at what intervals officers check on inmates, saying that corrections officers are “always” walking around. However, TDCJ has for years struggled with corrections officer vacancies, and prisoners have reported that staffing issues mean that prisoners’ requests for showers and respite are rarely answered.
Tiffany Turner told the Chronicle that her husband, incarcerated at the Polunsky Unit in far East Texas, gets water only about once per day, and it’s lukewarm, not iced. She said with staff skipping work during the heat, respite is almost nonexistent. Kat Comisky’s husband, who was recently released from the Estelle Unit, told her some guards arbitrarily deny respite. “He’s seen people ask, ‘Can I go to respite?’ And certain guards will just say no. He said it all depends on the guard.”
The department estimates that the lockdown will only last two weeks. Dominick doesn’t believe it. Such lockdowns are rare, but she said based on experience, “I’m saying one month, minimum. … Meanwhile, if we get another heat dome, we’re going to break the record for the number of deaths this summer.”
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