Death by Incarceration by Doran Larson

Death by Incarceration

By Doran Larson

Stories of the killing heat inside Texas prisons, and legislative neglect of the condition, are appearing in local, state, and national news outlets, but the deadly temperatures are not new to the people incarcerated there. Writers held in Texas have long criticized their unsafe living conditions. In 2014, I founded The American Prison Writing Archive (APWA). The APWA grew out of a collection of non-fiction essays by people incarcerated in the US today, writing about their experience inside legal lockup. When the deadline for submissions passed in 2012, and essays just kept coming, the APWA was created to offer a platform to writers who were both too many and too determined to be corralled into one volume or even a print series.  At this writing, the APWA hosts over 3,300 essays and grows daily. This includes 226 essays by writers in the Lone Star State. One in every six of these essays addresses heat: debilitating and lethal excess in summer months, and none or too little in fall and winter.

Kyle Dillon reports that

Many of us sleep on the bare concrete floor or directly on the steel bunk because it is too hot to lay on a mattress. To help the air flow a single fan is placed on the end of the 27 cell run about 10′ or so before the cells start for the whole run which is about 140-150‘ long. No air flow can be felt in a cell past about 6 cell. The average heat index is 10° higher than it is outside. Being given cold water twice a day is supposed to fix all this…. Prisoners have died in Texas from the heat and heat related injuries are a constant concern every year yet nothing is being done to fix this life endangering problem…an Eighth Amendment concern for cruel and unusual punishment. People face criminal charges for leaving their pets in similar extreme heat. Do humans deserve any less than animals?[1]

Ramon Pereida Garcia, III writes, “I wake up sweating because the walls emanate heat as if I am near an oven.”[2] Elsewhere, Kyle J. Peacock states that

Right now, I’m in my cubicle at my desk writing this essay and I am sweating. Like, the sort of sweat you generate from crossfit training. Yet I’m only sitting, only moving my wrist to move the pencil while my headphones blare Christian rock from KGNZ. If I’m sweating this much and it’s only June, can you imagine how it will be in late July or August… At any other unit only administrative segregation/lockdown cells get to experience air conditioning. It is common for inmates to start a fight with someone just for the excuse to get taken to lockdown. How sad is that? Engaging in violence, hoping to get dragged off to a lockdown cell and experience some air conditioning.[3]

Long before the news cycle took notice, writers in the APWA spoke out about the abuse they experienced in the carceral system. In my new book Inside Knowledge: Incarcerated People on the Failures of the American Prison, I introduce readers to the APWA.  The book also sets the grounds for entering the Archiveby selecting first-person essays documenting the American prison’s active defeat of its four foundational rationales for being: containment, deterrence, rehabilitation, and retribution.  The opening chapter offers a history of the American prison with commentary from incarcerated people since 1799.  This testimonial history makes plain that prisons simply don’t work and never have. Rather than deterring crime, prisons degrade prospects for employment, marriage, and community connections, making resisting crime harder despite reformed intentions.  Prisons contain less harm than they spread among the families and communities of the condemned.  Time inside doesn’t rehabilitate.  Reform occurs only due to the efforts of imprisoned people to resist the damage done to them.  They don’t even deliver meaningful retribution.  Prisons simply mete out generic pain for crimes from drug possession to murder, inspiring less remorse for lawbreaking than disdain for the law.   

The APWA will soon hold an estimated word count equivalent to 60% of all known North American narratives by enslaved people. That is, in a predictable period of time, the APWA will offer more first-person witness to the human experience of mass incarceration than exists for US chattel slavery.  Like their predecessor authors, writers in the APWA describe not just time in exile from legal protections, respect for human rights and dignity. They write of every dimension of lives caught up in criminal legal systems: from homes and communities, policing, jails, courts, collective millennia of legal confinement, release and the arduous struggle to reconstitute their lives outside. Indeed, there is hardly a facet of the social problems that outsiders devise plans to address that APWA writers do not document from their receiving end.

I have selected over 200 living authors for inclusion in Inside Knowledge, and theirperspectives on the US prison system and its practical failures make evident the fundamental cause of such failures: systemic refusal to recognize incarcerated people—a disproportionately poor, non-white population—as full human beings bearing basic human rights, including the right to life itself. 

It’s widely known that the US hands out more and longer prison sentences than any other nation on earth. What is not well known enough is how often these sentences constitute death by incarceration. The writers in Inside Knowledge share what incarceration looks, smells, sounds and feels like. They help us not only to measure the human costs of the current legal order, but to sight the path toward a more humane and socially constructive future.                    

[1] Kyle Dillon, “Despite several attempts to resolve,” The American Prison Writing Archive at

[2] Ramon Pereida Garcia, III, “I wake up sweating because the walls…,” The American Prison Writing Archive at

[3] Kyle J. Peacock, “Gears and cogs,” The American Prison Writing Archive at

Doran Larson is Edward North Professor of Literature at Hamilton College. He is the author of Witness in the Era of Mass Incarceration, editor of Fourth City: Essays from the Prison in America, and founded and co-directs The American Prison Writing Archive ( Most recently, he has written Inside Knowledge: Incarcerated People on the Failures of the American Prison.

Doran Larson
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