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Needed in jails in a heat emergency: air conditioning and oversight


What you’ll read today

  • Spotlight: Needed in jails in a heat emergency: air conditioning and oversight

  • Commentary: I was sexually assaulted. And I believe incarcerating rapists doesn’t help victims like me.

  • Media Frame: 5 common tactics used to discredit reform DAs

  • Will November bring a ‘wave’ of reform prosecutors in Virginia?

  • Hawaii governor sinks criminal justice reforms, allows pot decriminalization

  • A call for a moratorium on the death penalty in Harris County, Texas

  • Seventh Circuit rules that mass strip search for training purposes not a violation of the Fourth Amendment

In the Spotlight

Needed in jails in a heat emergency: air conditioning and oversight

Over the weekend, much of the United States experienced a heat wave. In The Atlantic last week, Robinson Meyer described what was coming as “a vast blanket of oppressive heat [that] will smother the eastern two-thirds of the United States, subjecting tens of millions of people to searingly hot days and forbidding, unrelenting nights.”  The “inescapable humidity will meet broiling air to produce heat indexes in excess of 110 degrees Fahrenheit.”

Heat waves “kill more Americans, on average than any other type of weather event,” wrote Meyer. “And heat waves like this one—multiday episodes during which temperatures barely budge overnight—can be especially deadly, because people without air conditioning at home can’t open their windows and cool off while they sleep.”

In response to the predicted weather, New York City activated an emergency heat plan and Mayor Bill de Blasio and the city commissioner urged residents to take precautions. The emergency management commissioner said: “Extreme heat is an underestimated and deadly hazard. The best way to beat the heat is to use an air-conditioner or to visit one of the city’s cooling centers.” The city health commissioner reiterated that message, saying, “Hot weather is dangerous and can kill. People with chronic physical and mental health conditions should use air conditioning if they have it, and get to a cool, air conditioned place if they don’t.”

The emergency measures underscore what is common sense: During long stretches of extreme heat, air conditioning can make a difference in everyone’s well-being and, for people with health conditions, their safety. Yet, as the heat set in, local advocates pointed out that one group in New York City had little access to air conditioning: people in jail. 

On Friday, Brooklyn Defender Services, a public defender office, described what the office was hearing from incarcerated clients and what the staff was seeing at Rikers:



The Legal Aid Society also raised the alarm about conditions at Rikers, highlighting the specific risks to people in the Enhanced Supervision Housing Units, “typically locked into un-air-conditioned cells for a minimum of 14 hours, and up to 23 hours.” 

Rikers is not the only jail that was cause for concern. The Metropolitan Detention Center is the federal jail in Brooklyn where, in January and February, an electrical fire led to power failure that left people jailed there in darkness and freezing cold for a full week. It was federal public defenders, hearing about the dangerous conditions at MDC in January from their clients, who first drew attention to them. Eventually, there was widespread media coverage and local and federal elected representatives, as well as federal judges, visited MDC, which led the Bureau of Prisons and the Office of the Inspector General to conduct investigations, still underway, into the power failure. (In the meantime, The Intercept reported last week, the warden who “didn’t just preside over the crisis, [but] attempted to conceal it,” has received a promotion.)

On Friday, Gothamist reported, there was another fire at MDC, leaving six people with minor injuries. Lawyers who represent people at MDC told Gothamist that just as the facility can become dangerously cold in the winter, it can become extremely hot in the summer.

Advocates drew attention to conditions at a New Jersey jail over the weekend as well.  Protesters gathered outside the Bergen County jail Saturday to demand that officials there address problems with air conditioning that had gone ignored for weeks. The county sheriff told Northjersey.com the same day that the air conditioners had been repaired and while repairs were underway, people who were locked up had been moved to a “suitable environment.” 

As the Daily Appeal described in late May, people in prisons and jails routinely experience extreme heat and official indifference. In Arizona this year, women in one state prison commemorated the 10th death anniversary of a woman who was “confined to a human cage at Perryville Prison in Goodyear for some four hours in the blazing Arizona sun,” as the Phoenix New Times reported in 2009.

In Texas, where 22 deaths in custody were attributed to heat stroke between 1998 and 2017, the state prisons department spent $7 million fighting a lawsuit over air conditioning in one prison. Last month, officials finally agreed to install air conditioning, at a cost of $4 million. Even after that decision, three-quarters of Texas prisons are not air conditioned and people are expected to work outside in the summer heat, sometimes with fatal consequences. Last month, the Houston Chronicle reported on the death of Seth Donnelly, incarcerated in Abilene, who died after working outside in the early morning. The initial autopsy pointed to “severe hyperthermia.”  

A recent report from the Prison Policy Initiative noted that “Air conditioning has become nearly universal across the South over the last 30 years, with one exception: in prisons.” The report also highlighted the lengths state officials would go to to avoid making prisons air conditioned. “In 2016, Louisiana spent over $1 million in legal bills in an attempt to avoid installing air conditioning on death row, an amount four times higher than the actual cost of installing air conditioning, according to an expert witness.” 

In 2015, a report from the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University warned of the growing threat climate change and extreme weather posed to the safety of incarcerated people. The solutions it identified included cutting the number of people in prisons and jails and protecting people from extreme weather events. It also recognized the obstacles to taking sufficient action, including “societal animosity” toward people in prison.

In New York, city officials promised prior to the weekend to move incarcerated people who were deemed “heat sensitive” to air conditioned areas. Department of Correction officials also said they would make fans and ice available in housing areas in jails that are not air conditioned and allow access to cold showers from 5 a.m. to 9 p.m. 

But a surprise inspection of at least one city jail suggested that the city’s measures were insufficient. 

On Saturday, City Council member Brad Lander—among those who visited Metropolitan Detention Center during the power failure in February—visited the Brooklyn House of Detention on an inspection organized by the Board of Corrections, the oversight body for city jails. He detailed what he saw on Twitter shortly after. His summary was: 

“Not enough fans. Not enough ice water. Hot showers instead of cold. Clear need for better heat emergency plans (since, alas, we are going to have more heat emergencies).”

Stories From The Appeal

Illustration by Cameron Wray

Commentary: I Was Sexually Assaulted. And I Believe Incarcerating Rapists Doesn’t Help Victims Like Me. The carceral system fails to heal victims and perpetuates trauma by caging human beings. It‘s time to try something else. [Stephanie Mundhenk Harrelson

Media Frame: 5 Common Tactics Used to Discredit Reform DAs. The backlash is underway against a recent wave of prosecutors who champion criminal justice reform. Here are some methods of attack. [Adam H. Johnson]

Political Report: Will November Bring a ‘Wave’ of Reform Prosecutors in Virginia? Competitive elections for commonwealth’s attorney will shape the prospects of decarceral reforms, from Fairfax to Chesterfield counties. [Daniel Nichanian]

Political Report: Hawaii Governor Sinks Criminal Justice Reforms, Allows Pot Decriminalization Governor David Ige vetoed bills restricting civil asset forfeiture and enabling the release of terminally ill people. [Daniel Nichanian

Stories From Around the Country

A call for a moratorium on the death penalty in Harris County, Texas: Anthony Graves, who was wrongly convicted of murder and faced two execution dates before being exonerated, and Patrick F. McCann, a criminal defense lawyer, argue that Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg should place a moratorium on her office seeking the death penalty. Although Ogg ran as a reformer, “her office is currently seeking the death penalty in at least eight cases,” they write in the Houston Chronicle. Of the most recent group of people against whom her office is seeking a capital sentence, 50 percent are Black men. Graves and McCann call for Ogg to place a moratorium on her office’s pursuit of the death penalty until it has taken specific steps to ensure that racism “has not infected the case’s selection” for each instance in which prosecutors are seeking death. “That pause for reckoning,” they write, “would echo throughout Texas. As Harris County goes, so goes the state.” [Anthony Graves and Patrick F. McCann / Houston Chronicle

Seventh Circuit rules that mass strip search for training purposes not a violation of the Fourth Amendment: In a 2-1 decision, a panel of the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that a mass strip search of 200 women in an Illinois prison, done as part of a training exercise for incoming cadets and conducted where male corrections officers could see the women as they were forced to strip, did not violate the women’s Fourth Amendment rights. The majority ruled that because the guards conducted visual cavity searches but did not physically probe the women, the exercise was legal under binding precedent. The dissenting judge, John Z. Lee, disagreed, given that the women were forced to expose areas inside their bodies and that the entire degrading experience was simply for training purposes. “Surely a ‘training’ justification need not be treated with the same level of deference as a search conducted due to concerns over smuggled weapons or other contraband?” he wrote. “It is rationales like this—that fall somewhere between legitimate security concerns and unjustified harassment—that suggest the continuing need for the Fourth Amendment even in prisons.” [Meagan Flynn / Washington Post]

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