For Incarcerated Workers, Summer Heat Can Be a Death Sentence

Ella Fassler August 28, 2019

PICACHO, AZ - JUNE 27: People incarcerated at Picacho State Prison work at LBJ Farms pitching watermelons for $2 per hour. (Photo by Nicole Hill/The Christian Science Monitor via Getty Images)

ABI­LENE, TEXAS — Tem­per­a­tures reached 97 degrees on June 21 at the French Robin­son Unit prison the day Seth Don­nel­ly col­lapsed. The Texas Observ­er report­ed Seth passed out dur­ing his prison job of train­ing attack dogs — run­ning around in a 75-pound fight suit” while the dogs tried to bite him. Seth’s inter­nal body tem­per­a­ture was 106 when he reached the hos­pi­tal, where doc­tors even­tu­al­ly took him off life sup­port. He died on June 23, and his pre­lim­i­nary autop­sy lists mul­ti­or­gan fail­ure fol­low­ing severe hyperthermia.

These con­di­tions aren’t new. Danielle, who asked for In These Times to with­hold her last name to pro­tect her fam­i­ly-run busi­ness from social stig­ma, says she woke up in her cell in Texas at Gatesville Prison one typ­i­cal ear­ly morn­ing in July 2015, drenched in sweat. With­out time (or per­mis­sion) to show­er or brush her teeth, she reports she was cor­ralled to the fields in a heavy uniform.

It didn’t feel safe,” says Danielle, who explains she picked toma­toes and jalapeño pep­pers with­out pay. Gatesville’s aver­age high tem­per­a­ture that month was 98 degrees. Texas in July, it’s like sit­ting on hell’s doorstep,” she says.

A guard who Danielle says she was death­ly ter­ri­fied of” patrolled the state prop­er­ty” (the term guards used for incar­cer­at­ed peo­ple) on a horse. Danielle says she was not pro­vid­ed gloves, which often left her hands exposed to thorns and caus­tic jalapeño juices. One day, Danielle says, after sev­er­al hours, anoth­er woman with­out gloves asked the guard if they could wash out their wounds. Accord­ing to Danielle, the guard stopped, pulled her gun and yelled like a drill sergeant: What are the rules of the field?” Danielle tes­ti­fies that anoth­er group yelled back, No breaks until work is done.”

Although there is lit­tle data or report­ing on heat con­di­tions for incar­cer­at­ed work­ers, they may be espe­cial­ly vul­ner­a­ble to being pushed to their lim­its because there are few labor pro­tec­tions and lit­tle to no oversight.

The Occu­pa­tion­al Safe­ty and Health Act of 1970 requires employ­ers to pro­tect work­ers from seri­ous haz­ards (includ­ing heat-relat­ed risks). Though the Act does not cov­er incar­cer­at­ed labor­ers, the Occu­pa­tion­al Safe­ty and Health Admin­is­tra­tion (OSHA) has said fed­er­al pris­ons must still uphold its stan­dards — which include, when the heat index hits 91103 degrees, remind­ing work­ers to drink 4 cups of water an hour, sched­ul­ing fre­quent breaks in cool areas, and devel­op­ing work/​rest sched­ules for work­ers in heavy clothing.

But OSHA rules do not apply to state pris­ons. Twen­ty-two states have adopt­ed OSHA state plans,” which cov­er state pris­ons with stan­dards intend­ed to be at least as effec­tive as fed­er­al stan­dards. Eight of the 10 states with the high­est incar­cer­a­tion rates have declined to adopt these plans.

The guards could lit­er­al­ly do what­ev­er they want­ed to us,” says Danielle, who was incar­cer­at­ed in Texas from August 2014 to Sep­tem­ber 2015..

Danielle’s stat­ed work­ing con­di­tions appear anti­thet­i­cal to OSHA’s guide­lines. There was a vehi­cle that would come by and bring some water, but if the vehi­cle broke down you were out of luck for water that day,” she says. That hap­pened numer­ous times. Even when we get water it was gone with­in a few min­utes and they won’t refill it for you. There are 50-plus women and the women in the back don’t get any.”

Danielle also says ade­quate work/​rest sched­ules were not imple­ment­ed. We would go on for four hours or more before we sat in the shade,” she says. I remem­ber think­ing — I know there were women there who were much old­er than me doing the exact same thing — What would my moth­er do?’ She would die. She would just fall over on the field and die. How is this pos­si­bly allowed?”

Danielle was not alone: Near­ly half of peo­ple impris­oned in the U.S. work while incar­cer­at­ed, a pop­u­la­tion dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly like­ly to be Black. Penal labor became a more sig­nif­i­cant part of the Amer­i­can econ­o­my fol­low­ing the Civ­il War; police would con­duct sweeps and make arrests of Black men when plan­ta­tions need­ed addi­tion­al labor for plant­i­ng, cut­ting and har­vest­ing crops. Today, a major­i­ty of incar­cer­at­ed work­ers per­form insti­tu­tion­al main­te­nance,” which includes tasks like mow­ing the com­pound lawn and mop­ping floors. A rel­a­tive­ly small num­ber of oth­ers work in cor­rec­tion­al indus­tries,” man­u­fac­tur­ing things like license plates, sewing Amer­i­can flags and — as in Danielle’s case — har­vest­ing veg­eta­bles that are lat­er sold for a prof­it. All sev­en states that don’t pay for non-indus­try labor are in the South, which can reach dan­ger­ous­ly hot sum­mer temperatures.

Even indoor prison work can be dan­ger­ous, as 13 states — most of them in the South — do not equip pris­ons with air con­di­tion­ing. As Time not­ed in 2016, more than 120,000 beds in Texas’ crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem do not have air con­di­tion­ing, while less than 1% of free Tex­ans live in a home with­out air con­di­tion­ing.” OSHA rec­om­mends indoor tem­per­a­tures between 6876 degrees, and Texas coun­ty jails must be between 6585 degrees — but not Texas state prisons.

While there have not been any assess­ments of the occu­pa­tion­al health of incar­cer­at­ed work­ers, it is well doc­u­ment­ed that heat-relat­ed ill­ness­es are a gen­er­al prob­lem for peo­ple in pris­ons, even when they are not working.

Anec­do­tal evi­dence of heat-relat­ed prob­lems inside pris­ons pro­vides addi­tion­al insight. In a first-per­son account for The Mar­shall Project, Tim­o­thy Bazrowx described being beat­en with a pipe and how a field cap­tain shot at his feet dur­ing his first day of work in the fields. In 2017, The Dai­ly Haze pub­lished a video of incar­cer­at­ed work­ers scream­ing for help inside of a St. Louis work­house as tem­per­a­tures broke 100 degrees. The Cam­paign to Fight Tox­ic Pris­ons, a group of grass­roots advo­cates, said it is com­mon for pris­on­ers with­in [the Flori­da Depart­ment of Cor­rec­tions] to be rou­tine­ly denied ade­quate food and safe drink­ing water, espe­cial­ly those who go out­side the gate on work crews. They are nev­er giv­en enough to eat and are forced to work in all con­di­tions despite injury, sick­ness, bru­tal temperatures.”

Andrew, a 31-year-old who has been incar­cer­at­ed in Flori­da since he was 17, says con­fined labor­ers are rou­tine­ly dehy­drat­ed on the job. Andrew says his first manda­to­ry prison job, in 2006 at age 18 in Hamil­ton Cor­rec­tion­al Insti­tu­tion (HCI), con­sist­ed of mow­ing the swampy com­pound lawn using a dull-blad­ed non-elec­tric push mow­er in cloth shoes with poor soles from 8 a.m. until the end of the day and/​or job com­ple­tion along­side a group of oth­er men. The clos­est large city to HCI, Val­dos­ta, Geor­gia, had an aver­age high of about 92 degrees dur­ing Andrew’s first sum­mer on the job. The con­fined labor­ers were gen­er­al­ly giv­en water in the morn­ings, accord­ing to Andrew, but the igloo cool­er was emp­ty with­in an hour and a half. Dur­ing his time on the job, he fre­quent­ly wit­nessed peo­ple col­laps­ing from fatigue, he told In These Times. And some­times, he says, the sim­ple act of tak­ing a break result­ed in vio­lent dis­ci­pline: The offi­cers will come and they’ll put you in hand­cuffs … and a lot of times the hand­cuffs turn into you get­ting slammed on the floor,” Andrew says.

Lim­it­ed strides to cool pris­ons in Texas have been made through civ­il lit­i­ga­tion. After four years of lit­i­ga­tion, in May 2018, the Texas Depart­ment of Crim­i­nal Jus­tice (TDCJ) agreed to install air con­di­tion­ing in the hous­ing sec­tions of Wal­lace Pack Unit, which hous­es many elder­ly and vul­ner­a­ble pris­on­ers. As recent­ly as August 9, how­ev­er, Fed­er­al Judge Kei­th Elli­son accused TDCJ of not ful­ly com­ply­ing with the settlement.

The suf­fer­ing endured in the heat, which will wors­en with cli­mate change, is stoked by cru­el­ty. Despite the heat and ter­ri­ble con­di­tions we lived in — basi­cal­ly, sleep­ing in a sauna — it was so much more than that,” says Danielle. It was like [the guards] got a thrill out of mak­ing us feel we were less­er than people.”

Ella Fassler is an inde­pen­dent writer, researcher and prison abolitionist.
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