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Former Texas prisoners come to Colorado to raise awareness of dangers of extreme heat

Marci Marie Simmons was one of three formerly incarcerated Texas prisoners who spoke at the 2023 Natural Hazards Workshop organized by the University of Colorado, Boulder
Marci Marie Simmons
Marci Marie Simmons was one of three formerly incarcerated Texas prisoners who spoke at the 2023 Natural Hazards Workshop organized by the University of Colorado, Boulder

As a heatwave grips much of the U.S., prisoners' rights advocates are sounding the alarm on the dangerous conditions being suffered by many incarcerated people.

They say triple-digit temperatures are creating deadly conditions in prisons.

According to the Prison Policy Initiative, thirteen states in the hottest parts of the U.S. lack universal air conditioning in prisons.

This includes Texas.

The Texas Department of Criminal Justice has not acknowledged that a prisoner has died as a result of heat since 2012, but a recent study by multiple universities says as many as 13% of deaths in Texas prisons during warm months could be caused by the heat.

Three women who were formerly incarcerated in Texas recently traveled to Colorado to share their stories with researchers and planners who work on mitigating the impact of natural disasters.

One of the women, Marci Marie Simmons, was incarcerated in Gatesville, Texas, for over a decade.

Simmons shares stories of her time in prison with her more than 30 thousand followers on Instagram, as a way to raise awareness about prison conditions.

"I remember the first summer that I was incarcerated, and the kitchen cook smuggled a raw egg into the dorm, and she cracked it on the day-room floor, the concrete floor, and we all just stood around and watched that egg fry, almost as if it was in a skillet on a stove," she said.

"And I remember thinking, 'That egg is frying like this. What is this heat doing to my insides, right? Physically, what is it doing to me?'"

Simmons was participating in the University of Colorado's Natural Hazards Workshop, which took place July 9-12, 2023.

Now in its 48th year, the conference brought together emergency management officials, planning professionals, humanitarian organizations, and researchers.

"And our message was very well received," said Simmons.

"We were asked very thoughtful questions afterward, and we were approached throughout the conference, all three of us, by people from all over the country with questions (like) how can they get involved in their state? What kind of further research needs to be done? And how researchers and formerly incarcerated people can collaborate on new projects to improve the prison system and make them safer and healthier for incarcerated people, which in turn makes our communities healthier and safer."

Jennifer Toon, who also served time in the Texas prison system, works with Simmons at the advocacy group Lioness Justice Impacted Women's Alliance.

She also spoke at the conference about what's happening in prisons.

"It's like the unit is a tinderbox during the heat. It's a petri dish when, you know, germs happen, when infectious disease happens," she said.

Toon says few Texas prisons have air conditioning, but she says the physical infrastructure is just part of the issue.

"So the answer for us is, yes, get that temperature control for folks and try to retrofit some of these facilities for that, but definitely start closing facilities. We definitely need to include that in the plan and open up that conversation about why we need to rely on other systems of care that are not carceral," said Toon.

The theme of this year's Natural Hazards Workshop was ethical action for disaster risk reduction.

Jennifer Toon says prisoners' voices must be centered as part of the conversation.

"You know, when the judge or the jury sentences us, they take away our freedom. That's the punishment. It's not to be tortured, it's not to be treated worse than an animal," she said.

"And I always ask society, 'Do you want me to come out a better, happier, fulfilled, healthy citizen, or do we want them worse?' You know, that's why these things matter to the community because we come home."

Earlier this year, the Texas House of Representatives approved a bill to require that the temperature in prisons be no higher than 85 degrees, but the measure did not pass the State Senate.

This story was shared with KSUT via Rocky Mountain Community Radio, a network of public media stations in Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, and New Mexico, including KSUT.
Copyright 2023 Aspen Public Radio.

Maeve Conran
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