On the third day of 100-degree temperatures last week, locked without air-conditioning in a Texas prison north of Houston, Joseph Martire said he began to feel overwhelmed. His breathing grew heavy.
An inmate for nearly 16 years, Mr. Martire was expecting to be released in a few weeks. But it was so hot that day, he recalled, that he wondered if he would make it that long.
“It’s kind of weird getting woken up with fingers in your eyes and not knowing how you got there,” Mr. Martire, 35, said of the efforts to revive him by pressing on pressure points around his eyes. He was eventually moved to an air-conditioned emergency medical area. “They kept me there for two hours, drinking ice water, salt water, taking my temperature, making sure I was still alive,” he said.
The weekslong June heat wave scorching Texas has been particularly brutal and dangerous inside the state’s sprawling prison system, where a majority of those incarcerated, and the guards who watch over them, have been struggling without air-conditioning.
In more than a dozen interviews this week, current and former inmates, as well as their relatives and friends, described an elemental effort at survival going on inside the prisons, with inmates relying on warm water, wet towels and fans that push hot air.
Some flooded their cells with water from their combination sink-toilets, lying on the wet concrete for relief. Others, desperate for the guards’ attention, lit fires or took to screaming in unison for water or for help with an inmate who had passed out.
“If somebody goes down, we start beating on the lockers and doors yelling, ‘Man down!” said Luke King, 41, an inmate who, along with Mr. Martire, is in a prison in Huntsville, Texas. With the heat, he said, that has been happening “at least daily.”
The superheated conditions inside many prisons — where temperatures can reach 110 degrees or above — have been a well-known problem for years, and not just in Texas. Across the South, prisons in habitually hot states like Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi also do not provide centralized air-conditioning in most cases, according to a 2019 report. And the heat dome that has settled in recent weeks over Texas has been increasingly shifting to the east, bringing extreme temperatures into those Southern states.