The US leads the world in incarceration rates and houses one out of every five prisoners in the global population. It is vital to remember when discussing this population that there are thousands of Americans within it who are innocent and/or who committed “crimes” that should never have been on the books in the first place—i.e. they didn’t hurt anyone, they didn’t take anyone’s things.
But all of these individuals suffer alike, whether they deserve to be there or not. And unlike how popular Netflix shows portray, the conditions inside these facilities are often dire.
Consider what’s currently happening in Texas.
Around two-thirds of the state’s prisons lack air conditioning. According to a 2022 study published by the Journal of the American Medical Association, between 2001-2019, 271 deaths likely occurred in these prisons due to extreme heat. In June of this year, temperatures registered in the 90s with some facilities reaching over 100 degrees, and at the same time, the state was jacking up prices on water inside.
On June 27th, Texas raised prices for cases of water (24 bottles) from $4.80 to $7.20. The vendor, Royal Pacific Tea Company, asked to raise its prices in the middle of a contract back in March and it appears that the request was approved by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. That may not sound like much at first, but remember that most prisoners are paid pennies on the dollar per hour for their work.
This is just the latest example of ways states and their contractors take advantage of the incarcerated. Many also charge outrageous rates for things like phone calls, tampons, and other basic medical care—a financial burden that mostly punishes the families and children of those behind bars more than anything.
At best, these practices financially stretch vulnerable families and force inmates to live in inhumane conditions. At worst, they get people killed, and the lack of access to clean water in Texas prisons mid-July could provide one example of that.
Texas prisons raise prices 50% for fucking water for the people locked up in their unairconditioned state prisons as the heat wave continues and it hits over 100°. https://t.co/JxRXno83Vp
— Eliza Orlins (@elizaorlins) July 25, 2023
While some will shrug their shoulders at such information, picturing Ted Bundy and Jeffrey Dahmer types as the main victims of such policies, it is again imperative to remember that they are not your average prisoner. Many of these people shouldn’t be there at all. And even those who should be locked up do not deserve to be treated inhumanely. We have the 8th Amendment to guard against barbarism because of who we are as a people, and to guard against becoming that which we disdain. Imagine if one of your family members was there – you’d still want them to not be tortured.
To most laymen, these kinds of conditions would be a violation of the 8th Amendment’s protections against cruel and unusual punishment. But given the country’s history of cruel conditions in jails and prisons, there’s, unfortunately, nothing “unusual” about this. In this way, the Bill of Rights can take a very long time to uphold.
In previous Texas summers, individuals have reported temperatures so high they were burned by their metal beds and had to spread water on the floor to even lay down. And after a slew of wrongful death lawsuits, and a $7 million court fight to install a $4 million unit in a geriatric facility, the state has made some changes. The elderly and those with some persistent medical conditions like heart disease can be moved when temperatures soar and, allegedly, staff are required to provide ice water cups and provide extra-cold showers on such occasions.
But the water at these facilities is often not sanitary—hence the demand for bottled water. “I would never drink the water at the tap,” said Don Aldaco, a recently paroled man who spent 24 years in Texas facilities. “I would always get a piece of a sheet and I would tie it on the actual spigot, like a filter. I would have to change it like every other day because of all the rust and all the crud coming out.”
Texas is far from alone in its lack of air-conditioning inside jails and prisons. USA Today estimates at least 44 states also provide this feature inconsistently.
According to Texas Public Radio, Royal Pacific did not respond to their request for comment. They said, “A TDCJ spokesperson said the company had pointed to inflationary pressure as the reason for the rise.”