climate crisis human rights Incarceration Kwaneta Harris

‘I wasn’t sentenced to be cooked’: Heat desperation in a Texas prison

Politicians in Texas denied air conditioning for prisons in May. Now temperatures of 100 F and higher are killing incarcerated people.
(Designed by Lara Witt / Prism)

By Kwaneta Harris / Prism

Editor’s note: Trigger warning — mentions of self-harm and suicide

His sweat drips into my drinking cup. I’m in solitary confinement, and I’ve waited nine hours for ice-cold water. Severe staff shortages mean the sergeant is distributing lunch. My thirsty eyes watch him fill my three cups with the cold water pitcher, mixing with his DNA. The ice machine is broken more than it works. I don’t blame it; I’d quit too if I were the only thing making ice for more than 1,200 people. When this happens, the kitchen staff is ordered to fill white buckets and empty vegetable tin cans with water to place in the walk-in freezer. I try to funnel metallic, bitter, and salty water past my tongue and down my throat. At least it’s cold. I drain two of my cups, and the sergeant goes against the rules by refilling them directly. As I grab my tray and turn, he smirks and says, “Not bad for your age, not bad at all.”

My stomach tightens and threatens to reverse the water. This is my seventh Texas summer in The Hole out of 16 years incarcerated. This is my first year wearing only state-issued white panties and bras, The Prison Bikini. I’ve always worn a T-shirt and shorts or just a very long T-shirt with undergarments. Last June, I fainted when my cell temperature reading reached 129°. This year, I let the dignity vampires win, and I, as the lone holdout, began the demeaning obligation of wearing undergarments while surrounded by a majority male staff. I can’t stomach their comments. Some take this survival tactic as an invitation. This is the price I pay for bad-tasting cold water. It’s my only option as Texas suffers through a brutal heat wave, and our water access inside prison is increasingly restricted.

Our water is often turned off, and restored water access is tempered with boil water notices. There’s no way for us to boil water. Guards yell for us to drink from the tap when we beg for cold water. The tap is warm. Despite making $77 million off prison-labor goods in 2019, Texas Corrections Institute and the state of Texas don’t pay the incarcerated people they force to work, and only those with family financial support can purchase bottled water. But during this heat wave, our bottled water prices increased from 20 cents per bottle to 30 cents per bottle. Before the heat wave, there wasn’t a limit to how many bottles we could purchase. In May, the prison limited us to buying 24 bottles every two weeks. I guess price gouging is legal when the state is the gouger and prisoners are the customers. This all contributes to desperation.  

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In May, Texas legislature denied air conditioning for prisons again. Weeks later, two women incarcerated in this prison died after complaining of chest pains, and medical returned them to their beds. One, Elizabeth Hagerty, was scheduled for release Aug. 2. The Texas Department of Justice claims the other woman, Debra Schlegel, was brought to an air-conditioned medical unit, though it was widely believed in my unit that she became ill due to the heat.  

I, too, have complained of chest pains since my second bout with COVID-19 in 2020. Finally, in May, I saw the cardiologist. Although he ordered an expedited stress test for the following week, the prison medical staff canceled and rescheduled the test for August. Meanwhile, it’s too hot to exercise in this cell, and we seldom have recreation. Due to my lack of movement, I’m taking much more aspirin than recommended to keep my blood from clotting. My physical discomfort also includes all the signs of perimenopause, including hot flashes, insomnia, headaches, and dizziness. The air is so heavy and humid that it’s like sucking a thick milkshake through a straw. I saturate my sheet with tap water and roll myself in it like a burrito, then I lay still while my fan blows on me. I have to wake up every hour and a half to repeat this cycle. I keep my sink filled with water to submerge my head. Sometimes, I fill my two large bowls with water for each foot. This is how I fight for my life. 

I am punished by being away. That IS the punishment. I wasn’t sentenced to be cooked. 

Daily, young women are under constant observation for suicide attempts so that they can get transferred to the air-conditioned psychiatric center. As a failed deterrent, prison staff places people under suicide watch in an empty cell, nude with only a gown and paper triangle for drinks. No fan, mat, toilet paper, or pads. The sergeant announces the psych center is full and threatens to tear gas anyonewho cuts or hangs. My 21-year-old neighbor reassures me that I won’t be gassed directly because she’s overdosing with psych and cardiac pills. This happens every summer. Everyone has the same idea at the same time. They debate the best way to get transferred to the hospital via ambulance. That way, they can remain in the A/C until a bed is available. My heart is in my throat as my mind flashes back to many other overheated young girls who left here in a body bag. I beg them not to do it, but with the illusion of the invincibility of youth, they dismiss my concerns.

“Prison ain’t supposed to be comfortable,” is the oft-touted talking point by politicians when people question carceral inhumanity. Texans are proud of their tough-on-crime stance. State Sen. John Whitmire once defended Texas’ refusal to provide air conditioning for prisons with: “One, we don’t want to. Number two, we couldn’t afford it if we wanted to,” and he’s a Democrat. 

Social media has brought more attention to torture in the name of punishment. I am punished by being away. That IS the punishment. I wasn’t sentenced to be cooked. 

The Texas Department of Justice reported that 32 people died this June from various causes, and we know at least nine of those deaths were in prisons lacking air conditioning. None of those people had a death sentence. 

The money spent on defending lawsuits, staff injuries, staff turnover, and local hospital and ambulance bills in June alone dwarfs the costs of just providing air conditioning. In this record-breaking heat, I’m just hoping I’m not in the season’s body count. The heat is life-threatening, and the useless advice given is stay hydrated, drink water. How?

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Kwaneta Harris

Kwaneta Harris is an incarcerated writer in solitary confinement in Texas focusing on the intersection of race, gender and place. She focuses on illuminating how different incarceration is for women. She is working on a book about youth transferred to adult solitary confinement.

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