Death rates among people in prisons without air conditioning are higher than those in climate-controlled institutions, according to a new study.
The US has the world’s largest population of prisoners, and Texas holds more incarcerated people than any other state. As climate change continues to increase the severity, frequency, and duration of heat waves, the approximately 160,000 individuals in Texas prisons—as well as the people who work in these settings—come under intense physical duress in prisons without climate controls.
For the study, published in JAMA Network Open, researchers examined the relationship between heat exposure and mortality risks in Texas prisons, focusing on how these risks vary between prisons with air conditioning and those without it.
The researchers analyzed data gathered between 2001 and 2019 showing that 271 people died due to extreme heat exposure during that timeframe.
Even a 1 degree increase above 85 degrees Fahrenheit can elevate the daily risk of dying by 0.7%, the researchers say.
The researchers combined data from the US Bureau of Justice Statistics on mortality in Texas prisons with temperature data from NASA and used a novel epidemiologic analysis to arrive at its findings. The team reported that approximately 13% of mortality during warm months may be attributable to extreme heat in Texas prison facilities without air conditioning.
It is important to note that while an average of 14 people died each year from heat-related causes in Texas prisons without air conditioning, not a single heat-related death occurred in climate-controlled prisons, says lead study author Julie Skarha, who received her PhD in epidemiology from Brown University.
“The majority of Texas prisons do not have universal air conditioning,” Skarha says. “And in these settings, we found a 30-fold increase in heat-related mortality when compared to estimates of heat-related mortality in the general US population.”
Heat is often a silent killer, points out coauthor David Dosa, an associate professor of medicine, and health services, policy, and practice at Brown.
“We have seen similar situations in nursing homes, where heat isn’t reported on the death certificate,” says Dosa, a practicing geriatrician with dual appointments at the Providence V.A. Medical Center and Rhode Island Hospital. “It’s only after we run these analyses that we can determine how much of a role heat played in someone’s death.”
The findings, suggest that an air conditioning policy for Texas prisons may be an important part of protecting the health of people living and working in these facilities, the researchers say.
Additional coauthors are from Harvard University, Boston University, the organization Texas Prison Community Advocates, and Brown.
The National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities and the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences supported the work.
Source: Brown University