6 min read

Eco Roundup: Texas Legislature Kills Another Life-Saving Bill for Prison Air-Conditioning

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

Summer is by far my favorite season. I love the barbecues, the beach, and the permission in the air for relaxation and enjoyment. But for a lot of the people I talk to in my journalistic work, it's a very bad time. People who are incarcerated, especially in southern states — but also up north — face torturous, dangerous heat every year, without many options for respite. In Texas, two-thirds of the state’s more than 100 prisons have no AC, despite temperatures that routinely break 100 degrees. An estimated 271 people died over the past two decades because of the state’s failure to relieve the heat and install air conditioning, according to a study published last summer.  It’s an issue I’ve written about repeatedly for both The Intercept and Grist.

For the third legislative session in a row, grassroots organizers with Texas Prisons Community Advocates fought hard for a bill to mitigate the heat, requiring temperature to be set between 65 and 85 degrees in all state prisons. Just like it did two years ago, the bill sailed through the House with bipartisan support, before being left to die in the Senate as the session closed on Memorial Day.

Texas’s legislature only meets every two years, so at minimum another two brutal summers will go by without an actionable plan for fixing the problem. Amite Dominick, founder of Texas Prisons Community Advocates, told families, “Brace for impact for the next few summers. Because with climate change our summers are getting longer and our summers are getting hotter. So this situation is going to get worse before it gets better, and that is the bottom line.”

It’s not that there’s no money: Texas has a massive budget surplus of $32.7 billion. Given the life and death stakes of the prison heat issue, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that the lives of people deemed “criminals” by the Texas legal system — who are disproportionately Black, Indigenous, Latine, and low-income — are not a priority for politicians in Texas (or in other states, really). In short, being labeled a "criminal" makes you dramatically more vulnerable to the climate crisis.

Putting air conditioning in prisons won't fundamentally change that, but it would provide immediate relief for tens of thousands of people. For the family members of prisoners in Texas, who represent Texas Prisons Community Advocates' most active organizers, there's little choice but to keep fighting for an infrastructure fix that continues to lie just outside of reach.

In case you missed it:

I co-wrote a new story this month with reporter Naveena Sadasivam, at Grist and The Intercept. It’s based on this huge cache of more than 55,000 pages of documents I received via a public records request, related to oil industry repression of Indigenous-led pipeline opponents at Standing Rock — and it’s part of my long-running series Oil and Water. This story focused on how the pipeline company’s contract security firm TigerSwan worked together with the National Sheriffs’ Association to twist the story of Standing Rock in the media so that it aligned with the oil company’s interests. The story also includes new details about how TigerSwan and police forces collaborated on the ground.

“Tribal court jails are the worst jails in the country. They’re worse than any facilities you’ll ever go to.”

Last year Akil Harris and I published an investigation into climate crisis impacts on prisons. But the federal database of prisons we used had a critical gap: dozens of tribal jails were missing. Joseph Lee, Jessie Blaeser, and Chad Small at Grist tracked down their locations and the climate impacts they’re facing, particularly where it comes to heat. One of the wildest details in this story is the fact that it was so hard just to find out where the tribal jails even were.

“We’re trying to go stargazing at night and are surrounded by drones.”

Indigenous cultural resurgence has taken place time and time again in tandem with resistance to infrastructure that harms the land. Journalist Brandi Morin wrote about her encounters with security personnel and law enforcement during a visit to the Unis’tot’en Healing Centre, built in the same unceded Wet’suwet’en territory, in northwestern British Columbia, Canada, where Coastal GasLink hopes to build a liquid natural gas pipeline. For more, here’s a story I co-wrote with photojournalist Amber Bracken about the Wet’suwet’en fight.

“Conflict Resolution Group had identified her, found a video of her music, and 'blasted my music through my neighborhood.'”

In a bizarre interview with the right-wing Alpha News, the head of the private security firm Conflict Resolution Group compared Minneapolis police brutality protesters in in the wake of George Floyd’s killing to Boko Haram and the Taliban. He also confirmed that security personnel at times “play music to drown out business-disrupting protests or place doe urine where drug dealers gather.”

It’s fascinating to just listen to this guy talk, but the article you want to read on this is by Tate Ryan-Mosley and Sam Richards at MIT Technology Review. They found that “The number of new companies applying for licenses from the Minnesota Board of Private Detective and Protective Agent Services ballooned from 14 in 2019 to 27 in 2021.” In short, private security firms using doe urine, social media monitoring, and creepy psy-ops are filling the void where Minneapolis has failed to invest in housing, schools, and mental healthcare. Private security firms have used similar strategies against land and water defenders, as my reporting has shown.

“The government looks at our territory like a business plan.”

The Goldman awards are the most prestigious in the environmental world, and it’s seriously worth taking a minute to watch these 5-minute profiles of the winners — like, do it over lunch. Things feel really hopeless a lot of the time, but these are stories of people who actually succeeded in protecting some corner of the world.

One of the winners, Alessandra Korap Munduruku, for example, described what she faced as she and her community fought to stop Anglo American from advancing copper mining in the Sawré Muybu Indigenous Territory. Her home was attacked, her life threatened — but ultimately Anglo American withdrew. Copper is a mineral critical for renewable energy production, and it’s important to remember that, although a rapid transition away from fossil fuels is important, it by no means signals an end to the repressive, anti-democratic, and at times violent tactics that forged the age of oil.

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.

Something Delicious: Borage Tea

I planted borage seeds this spring for unknown reasons, and they’ve been doing great. This week I thinned the plant babies and made tea with their leaves. It tasted like cucumber and has all kinds of medicinal properties, according to the Internet.

How did I do it? I picked the leaves, threw about a quarter cup in a tea strainer, poured on boiling water, and steeped for 15 minutes. Delicious.

Garden update: Struggling Indoor Seed Starts

The only thing I do that I could call a hobby is gardening. My Brooklyn apartment has a wonderful deck that I share with roommates, and every spring I sow seeds and hope for the best. The microclimate is extreme. The deck is wedged between two cement buildings that create both a wind tunnel and a mini urban heat island effect, and the squirrels are relentless. I’m not trying to feed my family with this garden. Some plants will flourish and others will wither as they are eaten by bugs or mysterious diseases, knocked over by gusts of wind, or desiccated by the sun when I fail to keep up with August thirst. It’s all an experiment, and it’s just for fun.

This year to save money, me and my roommates decided to experiment with starting seeds indoors, with an inexpensive grow light setup. It’s been very fun, but these plants are growing verrrry slowly and I don’t know why. By comparison, the seeds we started outside are crowding their little pots. I had to thin the outside parsley, chervil, and lettuce — a mini first harvest of the season. I hope someday to eat my indoor plant children, too. So if you have tips for successful indoor seed  starting (or squirrel relief!!) I would love to hear them!

Bulletin Board

Two friends of mine, food justice advocate/excellent cook Jessie Wesley and writer/producer Alexis Haut, just launched a food and culture newsletter, The Nosh, and you should absolutely subscribe. This week's edition is dedicated to the start of summer, with a movie recommendation, a rhubarb apple crisp recipe, and a summer playlist.