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Texas inmates are being 'cooked to death' in summer heat, lawsuit alleges

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

As summer arrives, many inmates in prison brace for high temperatures, which can be dangerous to their health. Texas prisoners filed more than 4,000 heat-related complaints last year, according to the watchdog group American Oversight. And a recent study estimated nearly 2 million U.S. prisoners have been exposed to dangerous heat and humidity. As NPRs Meg Anderson reports, four nonprofits joined a federal lawsuit this month around extreme heat.

MEG ANDERSON, BYLINE: While Marci Marie Simmons was in prison, she worked as a farmer, harvesting potatoes and corn. It was hard labor under the blazing Texas sun. But when the day ended...

MARCI MARIE SIMMONS: You would have to mentally prepare yourself knowing that you were going back into that dorm. We would be trying to, like, breathe in the fresh air.

ANDERSON: There was no air conditioning, and she says it was hotter inside the prison than out. Once, she says, a thermostat on her dorm's wall read 136 degrees.

SIMMONS: I remember laying on my bunk, wondering if I would survive. It felt like I could not ever get cool.

ANDERSON: Simmons is out now and working for an advocacy group called the Lioness Justice Impacted Women's Alliance. Her organization and three others recently joined a federal lawsuit against the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. They argue extreme heat in prisons is cruel and unusual punishment. The lawsuit lists people whose autopsies concluded they died of heat exposure in Texas prisons. Kevin Homiak is an attorney for the plaintiffs.

KEVIN HOMIAK: When they died, their documented body temperature is 104, 106, 109 degrees. You think about how you feel when you have 102- or 103-degree fever and how awful that experience is.

ANDERSON: Only about a third of Texas prisoners today have air conditioning where they sleep. This is not the first lawsuit over extreme heat in Texas prisons. State leaders have tried for years to mandate air conditioning, but those efforts haven't gotten much traction. At the federal level last year, Texas Democratic Congressman Greg Casar and 13 other Democrats called on the chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Accountability, Republican Congressman James Comer, to investigate heat in prisons.

GREG CASAR: And he just ignored it. He didn't even respond to the letter. He just doesn't care.

ANDERSON: A spokesperson for Comer said, quote, "Casar's accusation is not based in reality" and pointed to Comer's support of greater federal prison oversight. Casar says, if Democrats take back the House, they plan to call for a new investigation.

CASAR: The disregard of people who are incarcerated reflects how those folks in positions of power just want to turn a blind eye to what happens to them next. But those are our people who will be coming back into society and people who have families that aren't locked up.

ANDERSON: A Texas prison spokesperson told NPR the department doesn't comment on lawsuits, but that it takes inmate health seriously. She said Texas prisons haven't had a heat-related death in a decade. Researchers dispute that claim. Multiple studies link extreme heat to higher rates of death in prisons. Others have shown increases in violence and suicide risk. Most states do not have air conditioning in prisons. Adding it is expensive. Last year, the Texas Legislature set aside $85 million to add 10,000 more air conditioned beds. That will still mean most Texas prisoners will continue to be exposed to extreme heat. Meg Anderson, NPR News. 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.

Meg Anderson is an editor on NPR's Investigations team, where she shapes the team's groundbreaking work for radio, digital and social platforms. She served as a producer on the Peabody Award-winning series Lost Mothers, which investigated the high rate of maternal mortality in the United States. She also does her own original reporting for the team, including the series Heat and Health in American Cities, which won multiple awards, and the story of a COVID-19 outbreak in a Black community and the systemic factors at play. She also completed a fellowship as a local reporter for WAMU, the public radio station for Washington, D.C. Before joining the Investigations team, she worked on NPR's politics desk, education desk and on Morning Edition. Her roots are in the Midwest, where she graduated with a Master's degree from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism.