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Just desserts or inhumane torture tactic? Are Texas state prisons violating basic human rights?

From images on the big screen and in real-life, Texas often seems like another country all its own. With larger than life folk heroes and legends filling our heads from early childhood, we often fall into the belief that good always triumphs and bad gets what’s coming to it. The reality, though, is that sometimes the people who are supposed to be good, may in fact not be as perfect as they seem in the stories.

There are more than one hundred state prisons in Texas, and most of them were built before air conditioning was a popular, available convenience. Built of stone and other long-lasting products, these buildings are fortresses intended to keep criminals large and small away from the rest of the community until they have paid their dues to the society they harmed. With poor ventilation and few windows (because, you know, escape routes), these facilities often turn into steamy ovens in the hot, humid Texas summers.

Whether or not you personally feel global warming is an issue, the numbers do not lie. For example, 2011 saw the hottest summer on record, and in Texas that year, heat indexes in some areas broke the 120-degree mark multiple times. There was little relief for those of us with the best air conditioning technology on the market until the cool breezes and gentle nights of autumn finally showed back up.

For 10 inmates in four separate Texas state prisons that summer, the heat took their lives.

Since 1998, a total of 22 inmates have died of heat-related injury (heat stroke). The medical examiner’s determinations in each case were that if air conditioning had been provided to the inmates in their living quarters (at least to lower the ambient temperature to 90 degrees or so), the deaths would not have occurred. The ten in 2011 was the most in one summer by more than triple any previous year. The remaining 12 were in groups of two to three.

While these numbers may not seem that telling, consider that 20 years have not elapsed since the beginning of these deaths in 1998, and 22 inmates total has met their end due to extreme heat and humidity inside the prison buildings.

Also consider that the majority of those deaths, 10 in 2011, occurred just 6 years ago.

The numbers do not lie. Something is broken in the Texas prison system, and it will only get worse from here.

The only measures provided by the prison staff to mitigate the heat in the prison facilities is cool drinking water, fans, and ice, when available. However, medically, these measures are not enough to stave off a heat-related injury when the temperatures climb to more than 100 degrees with nearly 100% humidity inside a stone-walled oven. Even being submerged in an ice bath would not work in those conditions. Texas state prisons violating basic human rights, or just deserts?

Add in the fact that once temperatures climb to more than 85 or 90 degrees, fans cease to help. Their motors begin to overheat, and in an effort to cool its own self, the machine begins pushing some of that heat back into the room in which it was placed. In other words, the fan will become a heating element, and the problems exponentially increase for anyone in the room.

In 1995, the city of Chicago saw a heat wave the likes of which has never been seen since. People living in apartments without air conditioning, and poor ventilation, began plugging in fans left and right, desperately seeking relief. However, the fans began putting out heat on their own, and people were found days later, cooked in their own sweat, with the fans either burnt out or still pouring hot air into a death trap of an apartment-shaped oven.

If we have not learned any lessons from the hundreds of deaths in Chicago in 1995, then we seriously need our brains checked.

The Texas state prison system is failing to provide basic livable, humane conditions for the inmates in their care. While these prisoners are inmates, they are not on death row, and cannot be so cruelly treated, for no reason except ego. Texas state prisons violating basic human rights seems an obvious truth.

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