Facing the Climate Crisis From a Texas Prison Cell
For the past seven summers, I have lived in solitary confinement without air conditioning. A trip to medical during a heat wave helped put the climate crisis into perspective.
Kwaneta Harris Jul 28, 2023
Even some of the most right-wing evangelical Texans acknowledge that climate change is real. They may debate the cause, but at a certain point, it becomes hard to argue with the effects. I know this because many of the guards who watch over me in my solitary confinement cell in a women’s prison in Texas are in this demographic. And they, like me, have had a front-row seat to the unfolding crisis.
Over the past seven years in solitary, I’ve seen magazine images of the aftermath of hurricanes and wildfires. These climate disasters have a way of feeling impossibly distant from inside these four cinder block walls. But a trip to medical after fainting during a heat wave last year helped put everything into perspective.
I have lived without air conditioning in this cell for the past seven summers. I wasn’t even allowed to shade my window from the sun. On a hot day in July, cells regularly reached 110 degrees. I’d heard stories of it getting up to 129. When the temperature would start to spike, I’d lie on the cement floor in wet underclothes and try not to move. In these conditions, women in my unit who are over 50—myself included—experience heart issues at alarming rates. These incidents are never reported as heat-related. Prison officials just explain it as a woman over 50 having a heart attack or stroke.
Guards don’t come into the cell blocks when it gets this hot. With their thick uniforms, many succumb to heat exhaustion. They do everything they can to stay in the air-conditioned parts of the prison. This environment might help explain the more than 7,000 vacancies for corrections officers in Texas prisons. The staffing shortage means we may not even get a reprieve to shower or for recreation. Nor is there a break for eating: In solitary, all food is served to us in our cells. For those in general population, staff shortages mean brown bag meals in your cell. Sometimes, there’s no one around to notice if we pass out or die.
When I fainted last year, I had to convince the guards to take me to medical. They’re always accusing people of faking symptoms so we can get into the air conditioning. At the infirmary, I saw images of Hurricane Ian’s aftermath playing on the television: houses torn apart, families standing in the rubble of their dismantled lives, water swallowing towns whole, and wind blowing away the temporary and feeble machinations of humankind. As I sat, sucking on ice cubes, I watched news anchors interview people who had lost everything and were barely hanging onto life. Outside the prison, grass fires burned.
These fires typically go unnoticed until the smoke drifts over to the building. Then, guards start yelling for help and run to the burning grass, where they begin stomping like an uncoordinated cowboy Riverdance troupe. Eventually, someone comes out with a fire extinguisher and sprays chemical foam on the ground. The guards who have ruined their shoes finish their shifts in their socks. The administration tries to blame these fires on us. How could we start a fire outside from within our cells, you might ask? Better not to ask questions like that in prison.
The recent summer heat wave finally brought conditions too dangerous to ignore. Between mid-June and mid-July, at least nine incarcerated people in Texas died of heart attacks or cardiac events in uncooled prisons where the outdoor heat indexes were above 100 degrees, according to a Texas Tribune analysis of prison death reports and weather data. The Tribune documented another 14 deaths due to “unknown causes” during the extreme heat, with prison staff often finding the deceased unresponsive in their cells. Two women recently died at Lane Murray Unit, where I’m incarcerated, though the causes have not yet been confirmed.
Officials recently installed temporary air conditioning in my unit following demands from the incarcerated population and staff. It offers a light breeze—enough to break the sweltering heat but too weak to actually cool my cell. Thousands of incarcerated Texans are suffering through much worse. Roughly 70 of the state’s 100 prisons do not have air conditioning in most living areas, according to a 2022 report by the Texas Tribune. State lawmakers have refused to provide funding to address this issue, and their inaction is costing people their lives.
Our collective futures will be filled with more and more scenes and stories like this. The United Nations recently announced that there was no way to keep global temperatures from rising 1.5 degrees Celsius—a target set by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change just a few years ago. We’re already over 1 degree.
But climate change will trigger extreme weather events that extend far beyond heat. During the Great Texas Freeze in 2021, our cells dropped to 34 degrees Fahrenheit. Prison officials gave us heat intermittently. They gave us blankets. We put on all the clothes we had at once. There was no water or electricity, which we are used to in prison. But the timing of these outages is critical. Being unable to flush toilets or turn on the tap or a fan in the summer is excruciating and nauseating.
Once, we had so much rain that the entire facility flooded. Sewage was knee-deep on the first floor. The prison kept us in our cells and did nothing to help us clean. We shared bath towels and passed around a mop and bucket as the mess receded.
Everyone agrees addressing climate change will cost money. But there’s so much hesitation to spend it—on this particular problem, at least. According to recent data, Texas spends over $3 billion annually to incarcerate more than 120,000 people in state prisons.
That money could be helpful to transition our energy system away from fossil fuels, provide low-carbon housing, insulate homes, or invest in bike lanes, greenways, and reforestation. People recoil at this sort of spending. But there’s always more money for prisons—because incarceration “keeps us safe.” The reality is that the devastation of the climate crisis will do far more harm than the folks who are locked up.
Before being sent to solitary, I worked in the fields doing the same unpaid forced labor as my enslaved ancestors. Sometimes, this meant picking, planting, and tending crops under the authority of armed white men on horseback. Mostly, we “cleared the fields,” chanting aloud to entertain our captors as we used dull gardening hoes to uproot the grass that would otherwise die in the drought and ignite from the heat.
We were human lawnmowers working against the intensifying forces of nature. But with so many little fires everywhere, we’ll eventually all get burned.
Support The Appeal
If you valued this article, please help us produce more journalism like this by making a contribution today.