Extreme Heat is Killing People in Prison. What’s Being Done About It?

As advocates fight to provide relief to incarcerated people, officials are resisting many measures that could help prisoners combat the heat.

Extreme Heat is Killing People in Prison. What’s Being Done About It?

As advocates fight to provide relief to incarcerated people, officials are resisting many measures that could help prisoners combat the heat.

In states across the South and Southwest, the summer has brought shocking headlines of prison cells reaching as high as 115 degrees, children being kept in stifling hot solitary confinement cells for nearly 24 hours a day, and incarcerated people reporting being “cooked” alive. A heat dome last week brought punishing temperatures across the Midwest, Central, and Southern U.S., resulting in triple-digit highs in many areas.

As brutal heat waves continue to engulf large sections of the country, hundreds of thousands of prisoners are being forced to endure deadly temperatures inside heat-retaining steel or concrete facilities that offer little, if any, access to air conditioning or circulation. With these conditions likely to worsen due to climate change, advocates are fighting to provide relief to incarcerated people who are now among the earliest and most vulnerable victims of this crisis.

Though the U.S. Constitution protects against “cruel and unusual punishment,” there is no federal mandate for prisons or jails to provide air conditioning or keep indoor temperatures below a certain level. As a result, facilities nationwide operate under an inconsistent patchwork of policies and practices that fails to protect the incarcerated. In some states, prison officials have resisted simpler measures to help prisoners combat the heat, including denying them access to ice, breathable clothing, cold water, and cool showers.

“Air conditioning at this point is no longer a privilege. It’s a right,” said Leah Wang, a research analyst with the Prison Policy Initiative and the author of a recent report on the impact of climate change on incarcerated people. “Extreme heat and heat waves are killing people everywhere in prisons.”

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Despite its notoriously hot summers, Texas is one of at least 44 states that does not offer universal air conditioning in its prisons. With more than 100,000 people in state facilities, Texas operates the nation’s largest state prison system. A total of 70 percent of units in its prisons are entirely or partially uncooled.

Earlier this year, Texas lawmakers finally appeared poised to take action when the state House committed to setting aside $545 million to install air conditioning in prisons. But the state Senate offered no money for the effort, even though Texas had a budget surplus of more than $30 billion.

“It’s unfortunate that this battle is this difficult,” state Representative Terry Canales, a Democrat, told the Texas Tribune in April. “It’s inhumane what we’re doing.”

Ultimately, legislators budgeted $85.7 million for general deferred maintenance costs, some of which could be used for air conditioning, according to the Tribune. Advocates said the spending fell far short of the need.

Since then, dozens of incarcerated people have died due to cardiac-related or unknown causes in sweltering Texas prisons, according to a Tribune analysis published last week. Relatives of the deceased and civil rights groups have maintained that the heat triggered some of the deaths. State officials have consistently denied these claims. The Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) has not officially classified a prison death as heat-related since 2012, even as research has shown that intense heat is associated with an increased risk of mortality behind bars, including due to heart disease and suicide.

Last week, congressional Democrats on the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Accountability sent a letter urging their Republican colleagues to join them in calling for a “serious bipartisan investigation” into prison and jail conditions and the safety measures being taken, “particularly in states most prone to extreme climate.” In a press release, lawmakers said federal action is a necessary response to “Texas’ refusal to protect inmates from excessive and dangerous heat.”

The TDCJ also attracted controversy this summer following news that prison commissaries had raised the price of bottled water by 50 percent as temperatures spiked in June. Officials pushed back against accusations of price gouging, claiming they initially approved the price hike in April.

In addition to air conditioning, advocates say prison officials can take simpler measures to help incarcerated people, including giving them lighter clothing and access to cold water and cooler, more frequent showers. But some officials have resisted even these modest measures.

Advocates in Florida responded to record-breaking temperatures this summer by lobbying the Florida Department of Corrections (FDC) to allow incarcerated people to wear shorts and plain white t-shirts. The standard Class A uniform consists of heavy long pants and a short-sleeved pullover shirt with a white t-shirt underneath. More than 80,000 people are locked up in the state’s prisons.

FDC confirmed to The Appeal that the department has temporarily relaxed uniform standards, but advocates say officials still require prisoners to wear their Class A uniforms in some areas.

Denise Rock, the founder and director of Florida Cares, a prisoner rights advocacy group, has called on officials to take additional no-cost or low-cost actions to address the heat, such as installing water misters on the prison grounds, lowering the temperature of showers, and permitting people to take multiple showers a day.

“There’s a few counties in Florida where they have ordinances for temperature control for the dog shelters,” she said. “Yet those same counties don’t have ordinances for temperature control for the incarcerated.”

Aaron was released from prison this summer after being incarcerated at a work camp in Florida. (Aaron asked to use a pseudonym to allow him to speak without fear of repercussion.) He said prisoners try to get older uniforms because they’re thinner from being washed so many times. Newer uniforms feel like flannel, he said.

While at the work camp, Aaron typically labored as a welder in a building on the prison grounds known as “the barn,” which did not have air conditioning. Sometimes, he drove a tractor in the surrounding fields, where he said “plenty of water and ice” was available. Aaron said prisoners were generally not allowed to enter the only air-conditioned area, an office for prison staff. But as hot as it was at work, the prison dorms were even worse.

“When it comes to the dormitories, that’s where it gets really hot and miserable,” Aaron said. “It’s cooler outside than it is inside.”

In Aaron’s dorm, 72 men shared a single water fountain, he said. At night, he’d dunk buckets of cold water on himself and sleep on the concrete floor. Since his release, friends who are still incarcerated have told him they’ve begun to get coolers of ice water in their dorms.

In an email to The Appeal, the FDC confirmed that staff is bringing ice water into prisons. The agency also said it provides air conditioning in units that house vulnerable populations, including people who are pregnant, mentally ill, or elderly.

New facilities “are designed with air-conditioning, but many current FDC facilities were constructed prior to air-conditioning being commonplace,” the agency wrote. Dorms without air conditioning “use some form of climate control to mitigate heat, such as fans or exhaust systems.”

But advocates say fans offer no relief when the heat index exceeds 100 degrees.

Florida resident Connie Edson has been working with legislators and corrections officials to bring portable air conditioning units into the state’s prisons. She was inspired to become involved when a loved one was incarcerated and told her that her housing unit lacked air conditioning.

Officials at Lowell Correctional Institution have brought in portable A/C units as part of a small pilot program, Edson told The Appeal. She said the program must expand to all of the state’s older facilities. FDC did not respond to questions about the pilot.

“I found a way to do it without having to tear down any facilities [or] put holes in the walls,” Edson said. “The problem is now, and we have to address it right now.”

“There is air conditioning in Alabama prisons, but it’s just not being sent to the Alabama prisoners.”
Ronald McKeithen
Reentry Coordinator, Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice

In Alabama, where temperatures have regularly hit triple digits in recent months, lawmakers offered no legislative proposals this year to install universal air conditioning in state prisons, which confine more than 25,000 people.

Ronald McKeithen, a reentry coordinator at the advocacy group Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice, said it was nearly impossible to find relief from the heat when he was incarcerated. In the summer, showers were hot, and they were lucky to get ice. Guard offices were some of the few areas with air conditioning, McKeithen said.

“There is air conditioning in Alabama prisons, but it’s just not being sent to the Alabama prisoners,” he said.

In an email to The Appeal, the Alabama Department of Corrections said staff provides ice to prisoners and that all facilities have “some areas” with air conditioning. Earlier this summer, incarcerated people reported they were not receiving enough ice.

The agency said that areas without air conditioning use industrial fans and that newly constructed correctional facilities will have central air conditioning and heat.

In Louisiana, attorneys representing children held at the state’s notorious Angola prison have asked a federal judge to move the detained youth to a new facility following reports that kids were locked in cells without air conditioning almost continuously for several days. But they filed the motion over a month ago, and a ruling may not come down until after the worst summer heat subsides.

In July, an expert for the plaintiffs warned the court that the heat could be deadly.

“I would not dare to keep my dog in these conditions for fear of my dog dying,” Dr. Susi U. Vassallo wrote in a statement submitted to the court. “Confining children for all or most of the day to concrete and cement buildings without air conditioning is foolhardy and perilous.”

While air conditioning is essential, advocates say lawmakers must also work to reduce the prison population.

“This is a public health crisis,” said Wang, of the Prison Policy Initiative. “Our best public health strategy is to get people out of prison.”

With a smaller incarcerated population, states can operate fewer prisons and focus on providing more humane conditions in those facilities, said Molly Gill, vice president of policy at FAMM, a nonprofit advocacy group formerly known as Families Against Mandatory Minimums. Officials in New York last year closed six prisons following a dramatic drop in the state’s incarcerated population.

“We need sentencing reforms to get everybody out of prison who doesn’t need to be there, and I think that’s actually a significant number of people,” Gill said. “And we need sentencing reforms to stop sending so many people there for so long.”

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