10 min read

Eco-Roundup: In Climate-Impacted Prisons, Water Contamination Collides with Extreme Heat

At the end of every month, I assemble a round-up of stories I’m following and issues I’m covering, with palate cleansers at the end.

This month's issue is a few days late, since my apartment flooded amid Friday's NYC deluge. Water poured into our unit through light fixtures, then the ceiling above the building's entrance and stairwell collapsed. Luckily, our landlord says she's going to widen the inadequate roof drain that caused the problem, because "the climate is changing and things like this are only going to happen more often."

Throughout the summer I’ve communicated with prisoners incarcerated in Texas as a heat wave baked unairconditioned prisons. This was the second hottest Texas summer on record since 2011, which was the year that the Texas Department of Criminal Justice confirmed that 10 people died because of the heat. Those deaths and the lawsuits they sparked led to the elaborate heat relief policy Texas now has in place to prevent more deaths. What I’m hearing from prisoners is that the heat protocol is not being followed, that terrible environmental conditions in the facilities are making the heat worse, and that people are dying, despite Texas’s denials. With temperatures regularly soaring over 100, 70 percent of Texas prisons are not fully air conditioned.  

As the summer comes to a close, I’d like to share a few big takeaways and prisoner testimonies that didn’t make it into my published reports.  

In unairconditioned prisons, measures to protect people from the heat are not being followed, in part because of crisis-level understaffing

Chase Williams, who is incarcerated at the Estelle Unit, not far from Huntsville, Texas, sent me a message in July that sums up the kinds of things I’ve been hearing. The excerpt below is edited for length. The “respite” he’s talking about are air-conditioned areas that are supposed to be available for prisoners to visit when they overheat.

In the 9 years I've been incarcerated now, it seems as if each summer gets hotter and hotter. The unit I am currently housed at has been one of the worst. There are NO large fans anywhere on the run to circulate air, let alone any other rows. The wing I am on is medium custody, which means our access to designated respite areas is non-existent. The only time I have seen the officers come and call respite has been when they had free world people here observing. Nothing in heat directive A.D. 10.64 is being followed... at all, ever. Cold water is sporadic, and 90% of the time it has no ice in it. It comes in a trashcan, is passed out by inmates and you're lucky to get one cup about every 5 hours or so.

These brick and metal buildings become ovens throughout the day, and come nightfall you struggle to breathe and sleep until morning. I tell my friend all the time "all we have to do is not die"... The heat causes people to be severely agitated and aggressive. The C.O.'s are doing everything they possibly can to avoid any type of work, and 90% of the time they are no where to be seen at all. The agency is perpetually short of staff, which keeps us on lockdown 4 out of 7 days normally, and even more so every first of the month when they all get paid.

At the Wynne Unit, Coffield Unit, Estelle Unit, and Lane Murray Unit, which holds women, people have told me they’ve been unable to regularly access heat relief measures laid out in Texas’s heat policy, including air-conditioned respite and access to cool showers. Anthony Bell, a prisoner at the Coffield Unit, told me that he went five days without a shower as temperatures soared over the fourth of July holiday, until an officer finally escorted him to bathe. At times, he said, he doesn’t receive his seizure medication twice a day like he’s supposed to.

Contributing to the problem is crisis-level understaffing that has left 27 percent of corrections officer positions vacant. It’s gotten so bad that Texas prisons were on a system-wide lockdown almost all of September, meaning prisoners had even more limited movement and options for cooling themselves than usual. The state blames rampant drug use and prisoner-on-prisoner violence for the lockdown. Those issues have both been linked to heat. Anecdotally, prisoners have told me that many around them turn to drugs to survive the unbearable temperatures, and research has shown that violence in prisons (and outside of them) increases in hot weather.  

Suspected water contamination, insect and rodent infestations, and other environmental problems are exacerbating the impact of extreme heat in prisons.  

At the Memorial Unit, a prisoner who asked that I refer to him only as MS, out of fears of retaliation, said he avoids drinking water, even when it’s hot. In recent months, MS tested positive for H. pylori, a bacteria associated with water contamination and crowded living conditions, that often shows up in prisons. He requested the test after hearing someone else was positive. MS said medical personnel shared minimal information about the diagnosis, besides telling him to retrieve medication.

Luckily, his symptoms were minor. Still, he said, “Every day, especially in the summer, I get scared to drink the water – especially when it has these little floaters inside of it. But I really have no other choice.” He buys bottled water when he can, but the prison limits how much people can purchase. “I’m fortunate that I can go to commissary and buy 30 bottles of water every 2 weeks. If I slow my water consumption down it will last me about 9 days.”

Sometimes, though, he runs out and has to drink what the prison offers. On those days, he uses a contraband hot plate that he rigged to boil water. “When I pour it in a cup, I pour it over a piece of rag. Even after I pour the water I still can see this orange-brown stain mark left on there,” he told me.

Contaminated water is just one of an array of environmental problems exacerbating the heat for people who are incarcerated. A prisoner at the Wynne Unit, who communicated with me through a loved one and declined to be named out of concerns about retaliation, said that a cockroach infestation this summer meant he was unable to turn to a desperate tactic that many prisoners use to keep cool: throwing water on the floor and laying in it. Laying on the floor would mean allowing insects to crawl across his body.

Far beyond Texas, the impact of the climate crisis on prisons is becoming increasingly impossible to ignore.

The staffing and water issues are not limited to the Lone Star state. One hundred people incarcerated at a prison in Stillwater, Minnesota, not far from where I’m from, refused to return to their cells in early September, in protest of heat-related conditions inside the facility. With the prison understaffed, the sister of one prisoner told the Star Tribune that her brother hadn’t been allowed to shower in two days and that prisoners lacked regular access to clean water and ice, as temperatures hit the 90s over Labor Day. Prisoners were reportedly stuck straining the facility’s brown sink water with their socks, unconvinced it was safe to drink. "The water comes out like coffee,” Amani Fardan, one of the people locked inside, told a press conference via a phone call. Officials tested the water and said it was safe, however they found lead in the water at another prison, in Lino Lakes.  

Meanwhile, across the U.S. wildfire smoke hit areas unaccustomed to the hazard. I wrote in June about how more than 150 detention facilities in the Northeast were in areas of “hazardous” air due to wildfires in Canada. Researchers in Louisiana have also been digging into how wildfires, which are projected to increase by 25% in the state, will impact prisons. Rubayet Bin Mostafiz, a researcher at LSU AgCenter, told reporter Drew Costley that most state prisons in Louisiana are located on the wildland-urban interface, where it’s easier for fires to spread.

Perhaps most importantly: people are dying because of the heat in prisons, even though prison officials deny it. Now there's data to help prove it.

Two key reports came out this year, both led by researcher Julie Skarha, laying out the correlation between heat and death in Texas prisons and in prisons across the U.S. This data fundamentally changes the conversation. In Texas, loved ones of people who have died in Texas prisons, are also speaking out more than ever, and drawing the link between the heat and their loved ones’ deaths. We’re talking less and less about whether prisoners deserve the luxury of air conditioning, and acknowledging more and more that this is a matter of life and death.

Of course, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice continues to deny anyone is dying at all. Amanda Hernandez, a spokesperson for TDCJ told me over email that everyone has access to ice and water and respite areas when they have need. “We take numerous precautions to lessen the effects of hot temperatures for those incarcerated within our facilities. These efforts work. In 2023, there have been 19 inmates who required medical care beyond first aid for heat related injuries and none were fatal,” she said. Bullshit, say my sources.

I’ll let Chase at the Estelle Unit give us the final word

For me, I'm so ashamed that this is happening in the wealthiest nation on earth. A democratic nation that values human rights above all. Here, we are worse than animals. What this is doing to the human population that lives within these walls is barbaric and history will not be kind to the Texas leaders who perpetrated and perpetuated this abuse. People are dying... and no one cares. The people in here are humans, they are Americans.. we've made bad choices in our lives that got us here and we deserve the time we're doing for the most part, but to build prisons in the hottest state with no air conditioning, and to continue to house human beings in these prisons even after so many have died is wrong, it's cruel and unusual, and unconstitutional. I pray for America when we no longer know nor care that this country was founded as a sanctuary for people who had no human rights.

In case you missed it:

This month my co-reporter Akil Harris and I accepted a Covering Climate Now award in the multimedia category for our series on the impact of the climate crisis on prisons, and I got to go talk about it on the Weather Channel and WNYC’s Brian Lehrer show. We also found out we were finalists for the National Association of Science Writers’ Science in Society award in the series category. I’m really grateful for all the people inside prisons, as well as their loved ones, who shared their stories with us. I hope the recognition motivates other reporters to cover this stuff.

Meanwhile, I got to co-edit a killer feature by Amy Westervelt about the Atlas Network, this global network of think tanks that have worked together to spread strategies for repressing land and water defender movements.

I also published two stories. One was for Grist about how 61 Cop City activists were charged under Georgia’s Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, or RICO, a law originally designed to take down the mafia. The other, for Exposed by CMD, was positive news for once. From the piece (quoting myself lol): “In a remarkable ruling last Thursday, a Minnesota judge  summarily dismissed misdemeanor charges against three Anishinaabe water protectors who had protested at a pipeline construction site in an effort to stop the Enbridge Line 3 tar sands oil pipeline. ‘To criminalize their behavior would be the crime,’ she concluded.”

“The water was very clean before the Americans came”

This Inside Climate News piece on contamination left behind by the U.S. military in Afghanistan is devastating and important. Journalist Lynzy Billing takes the reader on a toxic tour of post-invasion Afghanistan, describing how residue from bombs, water contamination from toilet waste, and air pollution from burn pits left untold numbers of Afghan people with chronic health problems. Billing is from Afghanistan and lost her mother and her sister in a night raid by the U.S. military. She’s published a separate and equally powerful exposé on CIA-backed night raids for ProPublica that you should also check out.

“I would be willing to bet that there’s suicidal ideation in half of our employees right now”

When I went to receive this Covering Climate Now award, I chatted briefly with another award winner, Julie Cart, who wrote for CalMatters about a “silent mental health crisis” among wildfire fighters in the state. “For firefighters battling California wildfires, these emotional injuries are a workplace hazard,” she wrote. These guys are overworked and dealing with horrifically traumatic disasters, in “a work culture in which people are being paid to be tough and show no weakness.” It’s one of a myriad of new labor issues that come with the deepening climate crisis.  

“Even a four-year-old’s heart can be ‘full of treachery and deceit and love and longing.’”

On a lighter note (sort of) I really loved this profile by Casey Cep of children’s book author Kate DiCamillo. The author shared details of her difficult childhood and the dark parts of her past that make her writing for kids so good. I liked learning about her process as a writer (even though 4:30 am by candlelight is something I’ll never achieve) and about the community of friends that helps keep her going.

Palate Cleansers

I cover topics that are heavy and distressing to take in, so I'm ending these posts with things that make me feel grounded: food, nature, community.

Palate Cleansers: Snack Life

This month has been a total blur, and if I cooked anything I don’t remember what it was.

I do remember the delicious popcorn I ate at the adorable Tinker Street theater, in Woodstock, New York, which is built inside an old church.  

I also remember the cassava and pandan cakes I ate at Lady Wong bakery in the East Village.

Garden Update: Hire the Rain

I’ve mostly neglected the garden this month, but luckily the rain did most of the work for me. Right now I’m plotting some kind of mass herb harvest and bought an herb cookbook to help me figure out what to do with all this thyme and marjoram and lavender. A different garden did help sustain me through all the busyness, though. Last month for my birthday, a couple friends and I drove to Innisfree Garden, a little ways up the Hudson River from the city. We arrived early and watched the sunrise, and the purple glow of that morning has helped keep me steady since.  

Bulletin Board: Migrants are not Unprecedented

Thousands of migrants and asylum seekers have been arriving in New York for months, and the city has done a poor job of welcoming them. A friend who works with people seeking asylum sent me this article about how the influx of migrants is not “unprecedented,” as Governor Kathy Hochul and Mayor Eric Adams have claimed. I asked her for some suggestions of how people could support the migrants as they confront widespread demonization and criminalization. She pointed me toward two organizations:

Mixteca: “Doing amazing work and have very little money”

Bushwick City Farm: “Located next to a big migrant shelter that is doing tons of organizing for folks - getting them blankets and food and classes etc."