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Needed In Jails In A Heat Emergency: Air Conditioning And Oversight

Brooklyn House of Detention
Flickr/jqpubliq (CC BY 2.0)

Needed In Jails In A Heat Emergency: Air Conditioning And Oversight


Spotlights like this one provide original commentary and analysis on pressing criminal justice issues of the day. You can read them each day in our newsletter, The Daily Appeal.

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.”

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).”

Update: After this piece was initially published, the Dept. of Correction, in an email from Press Secretary Jason Kersten, disputed the characterization of how many hours people are confined to their cells in Enhanced Supervision Housing, but acknowledged that those units are not air conditioned and said that during lock-in times people have access to water in their cell and ice upon request. “We take the health and safety of those in our custody seriously, and we are looking into these reports to address any issues accordingly,” he said, adding that Correction Health Services was unaware of any heat-related health emergencies among those in custody during the heat wave.