Texas inmates soaking bedsheets in toilet water to cool off in unairconditioned prisons

Last week, Democrats including San Antonio-Austin Congressman Greg Casar called on lawmakers to open an investigation into prison conditions in Texas.

click to enlarge At least 41 inmates in Texas State Prisons have died due to heat-related illness or unknown conditions this summer, according to the Texas Tribune. - UnSplash / Taylor Brandon
UnSplash / Taylor Brandon
At least 41 inmates in Texas State Prisons have died due to heat-related illness or unknown conditions this summer, according to the Texas Tribune.
Amid the ongoing heat wave, Texas prisoners are soaking their bedsheets in toilet water to prevent heat stroke in the state's unairconditioned correctional facilities, according to damning testimony shared Friday with the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ).

Only 30% of Texas' 100 prisons are air-conditioned, meaning inmates are taking desperate measures to stay cool, according to the Associated Press. In video from last week's TDCJ meeting in Huntsville, Janet Delk testified that for her husband and other prisoners, those desperate measures include using water from their cell toilets to cool off.

"He said they take their shirts or their sheets at night and put them in the toilet so they can get them wet and then lay in them," Delk said. "He said they used to take [toilet] water and put it on the ground so they could lay in the water and cool down. But it's been so hot lately that water evaporates right away."

At least 41 people have died in the Lone Star State's unairconditioned prisons due to heat-related or unknown conditions this summer, according to the Texas Tribune.

Even so, it's hard to firmly establish how many have succumbed to heat-related illness, according to observers. That's because TDCJ's official stance is that no inmates have died of heat exhaustion since 2012 — the same year the agency began to be bombarded with wrongful death lawsuits from inmates' families, the Tribune reports.

Despite the TDCJ's official line, relatives of inmates, including Tona Southards-Naranjo, believe their loved ones died from heat exposure, they testified in video from last week's TDCJ meeting. Southards-Naranjo turned her son Jon in to authorities on a burglary charge. On June 28, about seven years into his sentence, guards discovered him unresponsive in his cell in Huntsville.

TDCJ still officially considers the inmate's cause of death unknown. However, Southards-Naranjo is convinced that the heat — which reached 98 degrees in Hunstville the day Jon died — was a significant factor.

"You see, ladies and gentlemen of the board, I myself turned my son in [out of] tough love," Southards-Naranjo said. "I believed in doing so that my son would be rehabilitated, he would pay his debt to society and he would come home a different man. Two of those things did not happen. He was not rehabilitated, and he did come home a different young man — a dead one."

Delk and Southards-Naranjo were among dozens of family members and ex-convicts who testified in front of TDCJ officials to demand Texas end its "inhumane" treatment of inmates during sweltering summer months.

While Texas officials have so far shown little appetite for air-conditioning state prisons, some in Congress want to see a federal investigation of the matter.

On Aug. 21, Democrats on the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Accountability called on Republican Chair James Comer to open an investigation into the heat-related conditions in prisons, including those in Texas.

"Our planet recently experienced the hottest month ever recorded, with Texas and other southern states measuring some of the hottest temperatures on Earth," Democrats, including San Antonio-Austin U.S. Rep. Greg Casar, wrote in the letter. "The capacity of prisons and jails to adequately prepare for and provide resources to meet the increasingly extreme weather caused by climate change deserves immediate attention from this Committee. If Committee Republicans are serious about conducting oversight of the conditions within prisons and correctional facilities, and not just playing politics with a single facility, it is critical that you demand that facilities across the country hold inmates in a humane environment and not limit your interest to a single facility."

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Michael Karlis

Michael Karlis is a Staff Writer at the San Antonio Current. He is a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., whose work has been featured in Salon, Alternet, Creative Loafing Tampa Bay, Orlando Weekly, NewsBreak, 420 Magazine and Mexico Travel Today. He reports primarily on breaking news, politics...

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