Heat wave in US turning Texas prisons into ‘ovens’

HOUSTON – On the afternoon of July 4, as Americans were celebrating the country’s independence with elaborate fireworks displays, a prisoner named Joseph Martire passed out in his cell in Texas, amid the excessive heat that has been swamping much of the southern United States in recent days.

In concrete, brick and metal penitentiaries, industrial fans churn warm vapour without really cooling the air.

And with no air-conditioning in most prisons, when outside temperatures exceed 40 deg C, it can feel even hotter inside the cells.

Some prisoners sabotage the toilets in their cells to make the water overflow and wet the floor, which they then sleep on. Others wet their clothes to try to stay cool, according to convicts, ex-convicts and family members who spoke to AFP.

In recent weeks, 35-year-old Martire had four heat-related health episodes at Estelle Prison in Huntsville, where he has served 16 years.

“I just passed out, the medical (staff) refused to see me and I don’t know what to do,” he told his family by phone. They called prison administrators to seek help.

When inmates sense that someone has passed out in a nearby cell, they yell to attract a guard’s attention, but staff shortages often mean delays, Martire said.

The stricken inmate is then taken to an administrative area of the jail that does have air conditioning for so-called “respite”. Prisoners try to linger as long as possible.

“I’ve already had too many issues with my health before from the heat,” Martire said.

The Texas Tribune news site reported that at least nine people died in state prisons in June from heart attacks or other possible heat-related causes.

But Ms Amanda Hernandez, spokesman for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) which is in charge of prisons, said the last heat death occurred in 2012.

In June, the department treated seven cases of people affected “beyond first aid” but there were no fatalities, she added.

The department, which oversees 126,000 prisoners, said 32 people died in June from a variety of causes.