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Texas congressman calls for an investigation as prisoner deaths spike in heat

DANIEL ESTRIN, HOST:

Some Democrats in Congress are calling for an investigation of state prisons without air conditioning. It's a problem in most states, but Texas is especially bad. It has air conditioning in less than a third of its facilities. And researchers say a spike in prison death rates there is likely heat related. Texas Public Radio's Paul Flahive reports.

PAUL FLAHIVE, BYLINE: Texas U.S. Congressman Greg Casar doesn't mince words about Texas prisons lacking air conditioning.

GREG CASAR: Being in a 115-degree prison is the definition of cruel and unusual punishment.

FLAHIVE: He's one of 14 Democrats on the House Oversight Committee petitioning to investigate states like Texas. The letter they penned pointed to Texas' repeated failures to expand air conditioning in its prisons. Texas prison officials say by next year, they'll have 50,000 air-conditioned beds. But that still leaves nearly 100,000 inmates without relief from the sweltering Texas heat. Casar says the state slow-walks progress.

CASAR: They've been dragging their feet on this for years. And now that it's getting so darn hot, I think the public sees just how inhumane this is.

FLAHIVE: Potentially deadly as well. Texas prisons have seen the mortality rate jump. In July, more than 20 extra deaths per 100,000 inmates compared to 2018-2019 were recorded. David Pyrooz researches prisons at the University of Colorado Boulder.

DAVID PYROOZ: It seems pretty abundantly clear to me that the mortality rates in 2023 are comparable to what we see in 2021 and 2022, if not worse. But especially, it deviates strongly from what we would think of as business as usual.

FLAHIVE: The state provided no explanation or comment on the spike in deaths and declined to give an interview. In an email, Texas prison officials said that the state hasn't seen a death from a heat-related issue in more than a decade. Julie Skarha is a research associate at Brown University School of Public Health. She wrote her Ph.D. dissertation on the topic. Her findings were published last November in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

JULIE SKARHA: The idea that there have been no heat-related deaths since 2012 is just false.

FLAHIVE: Her study attributed 271 deaths in Texas prisons between 2001 and 2019 likely due to heat, heat-related illnesses and a lack of air conditioning. That prison death rate is 30 times the national average. The Texas Department of Criminal Justice disputed the study's findings, saying it didn't consider age and listed cause of death. Skarha says she used standard statistical models in her peer-reviewed study. Meanwhile, heat in Texas prisons is increasingly unbearable, regularly reaching over 90 to 95 degrees for many hours a day. That's what Joseph Garza experiences at the Dominguez State Jail outside San Antonio. He's serving three years for drug possession.

JOSEPH GARZA: I'm 47. I have a hard time breathing. My chest - I wake up numb sometimes. You know, I put in for medical about this. Just trying to keep out of people's way. Just lay there and sweat.

FLAHIVE: Garza says he's lucky. They have regular access to showers and his bunk in the 60-man dormitory is near the fan, but it's still too hot.

GARZA: I really feel, to be honest, like we're jerky. We're slowly being cooked, you know, and it's frustrating.

FLAHIVE: As the state nears autumn, temperatures remain high across Texas. And advocates say federal intervention may be the only thing to change prison conditions.

For NPR News, I'm Paul Flahive in San Antonio. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Paul Flahive is the technology and entrepreneurship reporter for Texas Public Radio. He has worked in public media across the country, from Iowa City and Chicago to Anchorage and San Antonio.