We Need Better Data about What Is Killing American Prisoners. It’s Probably the Heat.

September 6, 2018
Anyun Chatterjee

DC is in the middle of a swampy heat wave right now, with temperatures exceeding 90oF regularly. My peers and I can joke about getting drenched in sweat from the walk from the metro to school because we have an air-conditioned building to look forward to. Any heat-related discomfort is temporary for us. Prisoners in our country don’t have this luxury, and it may be killing more of them than we realize.

If you go to the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) website, you can download datasets showing the reasons inmates died over the last few years. As part of my studies, I accessed this data and found a shocking lack of resolution.

Image credit: Anyun Chatterjee

Every death that isn’t due to an inmate killing themselves or another inmate is written off as “natural causes.” Further exploration of the BJS site or Centers for Disease Control and Prevention sites yield a little more information about the burden of certain diseases like diabetes and heart disease, but overall there is not much public information or raw data about what is actually killing prisoners in America.

Recent studies into the effects of extreme heat exposure (which we can loosely define as constant exposure to heat exceeding 86 degrees F based on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration heat index) suggest there might be a sizable burden of heat-related illnesses. In order to dive deeper on this issue, I started to look at Texas specifically, due in part to the excellent journalism of groups like the Texas Tribune and the Marshall Project. The writers on these teams have been tracking policy changes as well as the risk factors for susceptibility to heat, and bring up some excellent points.

First, there is some evidence that prisons make the incarcerated “age faster,” which is to say they have the health issues commonly associated with populations a decade or more older than them. This includes dampening the nervous system’s ability to regulate heat, which decreases the body’s ability to combat effects of extreme heat exposure. This issue, and the fact that there is an increasing population of prisoners older than 50, means that prisoners may be more susceptible to heat exposure than the general population.

Second, about a third of American prisoners also experience mental health issues, and another sizable chunk experience chronic illnesses like diabetes and hypertension. The medications for these conditions include psychotropics which further dampen the nervous system response to heat, as well as diuretics and anticholinergics, which tamper with bodily functions like sweat and urination. As a result, many prisoners may not even be able to sweat properly, and retain urine to the point of danger for kidney disease and hypertension.

But of course, the most important part of heat-related illness is the heat itself. And in Texas, the state with one of the hottest summers in the United States, this is the major killer. Almost 75% of Texas prisons don’t have air-conditioned residential areas. This is unacceptable now, and is even more concerning when you look at climate projections for the next 80 years.

As you can see, Texas is hot, and it’s only going to get hotter. Prisoners in Texas, and the rest of the country, are already feeling the impacts of heat. Last summer, a particularly disturbing video was shared on Facebook, where prisoners’ screams for help could be heard from outside. They repeated “Help Us, Help Us, It’s Too Hot, We Can’t Breathe.” The viral nature of this video pushed the St. Louis prison to implement better air-conditioning, but that was just a small start to addressing the larger issue.

Anecdotal reports will never be taken seriously by any institutional body, and they cannot inspire political will on the level that is needed to protect prisoner health. This brings me back to data resolution. Researchers need access to more information about prisoner health in order to better understand this issue and make a compelling case for better heat management. For starters, we need more data on the actual temperatures and humidity levels  inside of our prisons. As part of my graduate coursework I wrote a petition which calls for a public data collection schedule which includes urinalysis and blood work data along with temperature data.

You have the ability to send a similar petition the governmental bodies which control what data is collected and made public. You can use this template to petition the Office of Justice Programs, or your state’s correctional body. Finally, as further reading, I encourage you to look at the 2015 report out of Columbia Law School which examines the challenges climate change will pose for correctional institutes in the coming years.