HOUSTON — Last summer's record-breaking heat wave had a grim impact on Texas, playing a role in the deaths of roughly 150 people. Many of them were found in their homes or apartments, but a few were discovered somewhere else — in their prison cells.
Ten inmates of the state prison system died of heat-related causes last summer in a 26-day period in July and August, a death toll that has alarmed prisoners' rights advocates who believe that the lack of air-conditioning in most state prisons puts inmates' lives at risk.
The 10 inmates were housed in areas that lacked air-conditioning, and several had collapsed or lost consciousness while they were in their cells. All of them were found to have died of hyperthermia, a condition that occurs when body temperature rises above 105 degrees, according to autopsy reports and the state's prison agency.
Other factors contributed to their deaths. All but three of them had hypertension, and some were obese, had heart disease or were taking antipsychotic medications, which can affect the body's ability to regulate heat.
Of the 111 prisons overseen by the agency, only 21 are fully air-conditioned, and inmates and their advocates have argued that the overheated conditions during triple-digit summers violate the Eighth Amendment's prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.
Prison officials dispute those claims, saying that the health and well-being of the inmates are their top priorities and that the autopsies of the 12 inmates who died list a variety of contributing factors to their deaths. They said they take steps to help inmates on hot days, including restricting outside work activities and providing extra water and ice.
"After this many deaths, prison officials obviously know this is a problem," said David C. Fathi, director of the National Prison Project of the American Civil Liberties Union, in Washington. "Prisons aren't supposed to be comfortable, nor are they supposed to kill you."