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Incarcerated People Need AC to Combat Extreme Heat. New Climate Funding Could Help.

In total, 44 states lack universal air conditioning requirements in their prisons. A new federal program called the Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund could help catalyze action.

sun through the haze on a hot day

As the United States braces for another summer of potentially record-breaking heat, people inside prisons and jails are once again being thrust onto the front lines of the climate crisis. Many U.S. lockups lack air conditioning, and the scalding temperatures inside can lead to increased health problems, violence, and even death.

These issues have gone largely unaddressed despite routine reports and horrific accounts of the dire consequences for both incarcerated people and staff. After years of inaction, however, a new federal program called the Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund (GGRF) could offer a promising path forward, freeing up resources to help cool these facilities using clean energy sources.

The GGRF is a provision of the Inflation Reduction Act, a federal commitment to clean energy, signed into law in 2022. The fund is meant to increase access to green financing for community infrastructure, with the goal of reducing emissions by accelerating clean technology. Earlier this month, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced nearly $20 billion in grants to eight awardee organizations, money the groups could tap into for projects to provide air conditioning in prisons and jails across the U.S.

The need for urgent and robust investment in this area couldn’t be clearer. In total, 44 states lack universal air conditioning requirements in their prisons. Thirteen of these are states known for their extreme heat. For example, nine of Arizona’s state’s prisons sit in the Sonoran desert near the Mexican border, where summer temperatures regularly soar far over 100 degrees Fahrenheit. The problem is even more pervasive in county jails, where conditions are often worse and resources more scarce.

With summer temperatures on the way, many of the nearly two million people in correctional facilities nationwide are directly in the line of fire. Decarceration must be part of any longer-term solution, but we also cannot ignore the welfare of those who are currently behind bars.

Extreme heat carries a host of physical and mental effects, including dehydration, heat stroke, increased likelihood of heart attacks and strokes, and other illnesses affecting vital organs such as the kidneys, heart, brain, and lungs. A 2023 study documented over 12,800 prison and jail deaths during the summer months over the previous two decades, concluding that a 10-degree temperature increase was associated with a 5.2% increase in overall mortality. A separate study also found extreme heat was associated with “a 30% increase in the incident rate of daily suicide-watch incidents.” This heat poses significant safety concerns to incarcerated people and staff alike, as tensions spurred by high temperatures can increase violence.

In the face of climate change, these problems will only get worse and more widespread. But political action has been lethargic despite the routine horror stories, including reports of uncooled cells often getting well into the triple digits during heat waves. Last year, the Texas House of Representatives twice passed a bill that would have brought air conditioning to its prisons, only for the state Senate to kill the legislation. In Florida, after a sustained campaign by directly impacted families, officials installed miniature-split air conditioning units in one women’s prison, demonstrating an affordable way to cool housing units. But broader efforts to bring AC to prisons statewide will likely have a tough road to passage in the state’s GOP-controlled legislature.

In a rare example of elected leaders acknowledging the scope of the problem and taking initiative, North Carolina lawmakers in 2021 allocated $30 million to retrofit older prison buildings with cooling systems. Prison officials said the measure would reduce conflict and violence and help recruit correctional staff to fill vacancies—a challenge plaguing corrections departments across the country. Although the investment was a promising step, the project has taken years to complete, and some 12,000 state prison beds remained in buildings with no AC during last summer’s scorching heat. 

Incarcerated people can no longer afford to wait for the slow pace of politics on this issue. The billions of dollars in new capital available under the GGRF provide an opportunity to catalyze more immediate action. Recent grant awardees can begin the process by exploring collaborations with state and local corrections agencies. These public-private partnerships could bring cheap, clean energy to prisons and jails, significantly offsetting the costs and energy footprint associated with cooling large facilities.

Beyond benefiting the health and safety of those in prisons and jails, these air conditioning projects make good economic and environmental sense. Air conditioning is energy-intensive, meaning it can be expensive to run and lead to increased emissions if the electricity doesn’t come from clean sources. Tying these proposals to the construction of new solar energy infrastructure would give corrections departments more leeway to navigate tight budgets without exacerbating climate change. As an added benefit, installing rooftop solar panels can keep indoor conditions cooler by providing shade from direct sunlight.

The associated solar installation work would also have the potential to create good local jobs in the rural areas where prisons tend to be located and the depressed urban neighborhoods where we often house our jails. Many of these projects would fit the GGRF’s broader goals of kickstarting development in historically marginalized communities. Organizations could also go further by establishing green workforce development programs in prisons, helping people secure meaningful, high-paying jobs when they reenter society.

These investments are consistent with the broader objectives of the justice reform movement. While advocates continue the critical work of reducing our reliance on prisons and jails, we are likewise called to reduce the suffering of those who are held in them. Providing incarcerated people with air-conditioning—something nearly all Americans take for granted—should be seen as a bare minimum step to render life in these hostile places just a little more bearable. With climate change on the verge of bringing more extreme heat to many parts of the country, we must be willing to use all the tools at our disposal to meet this crisis head-on.

Janos Marton is the Chief Advocacy Officer at Dream.Org, an organization that works on both justice and climate issues. Marton ran for Manhattan district attorney in 2020 on a platform of responsible decarceration and continues to champion policies that prioritize people over prisons.