“I’m not supposed to be boiling them in their cells” Heat, climate, and the environment of punishment

In summer 2011, ten inmates of the Texas state prison system, US, died of heat-related causes, 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.In the fierce heat of July and August, prisoners suffered from hyperthermia, which occurs when body temperature rises above 105 degrees, and which can be exacerbated by hypertension, obesity, heart disease or antipsychotic medications, all of which can affect the body’s ability to regulate heat.

According to the New York Times, one inmate, Alexander Togonidze, 44, was found unresponsive in his cell at an East Texas prison called the Michael Unit at 8 a.m. on Aug. 8 with a body temperature of 106 degrees. The temperature in his cell, taken by prison officials 15 minutes after he was pronounced dead, was 86.2 degrees. Although prison officials say that they take steps to help inmates on hot days, including restricting outside work activities and providing extra water and ice, in the four-story Coffield Unit near Palestine, TX, where an inmate died of hyperthermia in August 2011, dozens of windows have been broken by prisoners putting soda cans or bars of soap into socks and throwing them at the windows, hoping to increase ventilation.

One corrections officer said “I’m supposed to be watching them, I’m not supposed to be boiling them in their cells. If you’ve got a life sentence, odds are you’re going to die in the penitentiary. But what about the guy who dies from a heat stroke who only had a four-year sentence? His four-year sentence was actually a life sentence.”

These tragic stories from Texas bring home the importance of the environment of incarceration, and as the title of the New York Times article  “Heat Can Be a Death Sentence for Prisoners” suggests, the ways in which climate can exacerbate the ‘pains’ of imprisonment. Although criminologists take an active interest in the location of prison facilities, and the debates surrounding the decisions to locate facilities in particular places (see for example Eason 2010, Hooks et al 2010), within the criminological literature the main focus seems to be on the relationship between the institution and the surrounding population; there is remarkably little consideration of the environment of punishment; that is – the climatic conditions – the settings in which prisons are located, and the implications of these locations for inhabitants of the institutions.

Environment matters, though. The distance between ‘home’ and the penitentiary is not just about the number of miles between two places – it is also about the separation between those places as it is actually experienced by those concerned; the perceived differences in socially constructed phenomena such as cultural practices, and language, as well as climatic conditions. This focus on spatiality and the concept of distance is not unique to geography; as Davis (1999) notes, these issues emerged in sociological work by Simmel, Durkheim and Parsons, and in Sorokin’s theorization of ‘sociocultural distance’ and ‘nearness’. Indeed, as Young (2006, 253) observes, among human and social geographers, distance has, in fact ‘long been a primary target in the struggle against geographical determinism and absolute definitions of space’, and theorists of late modernity, postmodernity, and globalization ‘have written profusely on the annihilation of space… by time’. In contesting these stances in his exploration of rural development in Canada, Young  adopts a position informed by hybridity and actor–network theory in arguing that distance ‘ought not be considered merely as the geographic tract that separates locales, but rather as an active combination of natural, technological, and social elements‘ (2006, 254). In other words, distance should be conceptualized along three dimensions: natural or physical attributes, technological infrastructures that penetrate and/or manipulate spaces, and social relationships among persons in these spaces. By so doing, the ‘realism’ of distance is multiplied, ‘in that the potential configurations of natural, technological, and social elements are exponentially expanded’ (ibid 254), and that the discrepancy in powers to actively configure distances becomes heightened.

Conceptualisation of distance on the part of the individual is key, and the ‘natural elements’, such as the physical environment, including climate and the mitigation of its extremes, play an important role. The climate, seasonal pattern, and landscape, especially when these are new and unfamiliar, all matter for the individual in perceiving distance and ‘performing it into being’. Historically, the challenges of transporting prisoners long distances to new environments have been recognised as practical problems to be overcome, pertaining to the health and wellbeing of prisoners exposed to new and unfamiliar climates and landscapes, with their attendant risks of local pests and diseases for which new arrivals were unprepared. Shanks et al (2008), for example, have pointed out the physical challenges associated with transporting prisoners from Europe to the Andaman Islands in the 19th century, culminating in very high mortality rates due to local strains of malaria, and Wilson & Reid (1949)  report more than half of a group of Allied prisoners of war perished from malaria while acting as forced labour for the Siam-Burma Railway. The impact of climate and local physical conditions on prisoners is also well known from classic Gulag memoirs. In The Gulag Archipelago Aleksander Solzhenitsyn (1974, 575-6), for instance, described prisoners from the south of the Soviet Union arriving in Arctic Russia in February 1938:

The railroad cars were opened up at night. Bonfires were lit alongside the train and disembarkation took place by their light; then a count-off, forming up and a count-off again. The temperature was 32 degrees below zero centigrade. The prisoners’ transport train had come from the Donbas, and all the prisoners had been arrested back in the summer and were wearing low shoes, Oxfords, even sandals. They tried to warm themselves at the fires, but the guards chased them away: that’s not what the fires were there for; they were there to give light. Fingers grew numb almost instantly. The snow filled the thin shoes and didn’t even melt… the doomed prisoners in their summer clothes marched through the deep snow on a totally untraveled road somewhere into the dark taiga. The northern lights gleamed… The fir trees crackled in the frost.

Conceptualising distance as the natural or physical attributes of space, the technological infrastructures that penetrate space, and the social relationships among persons in these spaces, it is clear that the physical attributes of space take on particular importance. For prisoners ‘boiling in their cells’ in Texas, it is not the literal distance from home that matters; rather the ways in which incarceration limit prisoners’ ability to deal with the climatic conditions they experience. Unlike the European prisoners in the Andaman Islands, or the Gulag prisoners experiencing their first Siberian winter, Texas state prisoners are perhaps quite accustomed to summer temperatures in the US’ southern states – but in the summer heat they cannot sit in the shade in the open air with a cold beer as they might do at home.

In Texas, inmates and their advocates have argued that the overheated conditions during summer heatwaves violate the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. For carceral geographers, the tragedy of these prisoner deaths in Texas points up the significance of the embodied experience of incarceration, in which the environment of punishment means more than the penal architecture or disciplinary regime of the prison, and which also encompasses temperature and humidity, and the vulnerability of prisoners’ bodies, at a distance from home which includes the technological infrastructures that penetrate and/or manipulate carceral spaces, and social relationships among persons and institutions in these spaces.