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As Climate Changes, High Temperatures Plague Prisons and Jails

by Matt Clarke

At a September 2019 hearing, a U.S. District Court judge threatened to throw officials with the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) into the same excessively hot prison cells that the agency had failed to air condition.

Despite agreeing in 2018 to install cooling at the Wallace Pack Unit northwest of Houston, the TDCJ failed to comply with the year-old order, part of a settlement in a 2014 class-action lawsuit that argued excessive heat was endangering prisoners’ health and lives in violation of both the Eighth Amendment and the Americans with Disabilities Act. [See: PLN, July 2018, p.1].

“This is not a mere compliance issue – this is a life and death issue,” argued Jeff Edwards, the prisoners’ lead attorney. “Someone is going to die because of one of two things: utter incompetence ... or utter indifference.”

TDCJ officials did not appear at the hearing, which was hastily called a day after Edwards filed a motion asking the court to hold the agency in contempt for continuing to expose prisoners to excessive heat and then attempting to cover up the violations. But speaking to the court via phone, Assistant Attorney General Leah O’Leary promised that the problem was being addressed. That’s when Judge Keith Ellison debated letting prison officials experience the stifling temperatures in prison cells for themselves.

“What can I do to get the state’s attention?” the judge asked O’Leary.

“We understand that civil sanctions are something you intend to impose here,” O’Leary replied. “We hear your message, you have our attention.”

At the following hearing, TDCJ executive director Bryan Collier appeared and said the judge had every right to be frustrated, admitting that “we failed as an agency.” However, he stressed that all 850 of the remaining Wallace Pack prisoners covered by the settlement were currently being housed in air-conditioned areas.

Driven by climate change over the past few decades, the average number of days each year with temperatures exceeding 100 degrees has increased from 5 to 15 in Houston. The Wallace Pack Unit was home to some of the TDCJ’s most elderly prisoners, part of some 13,000 state prisoners who have been deemed medically sensitive to excessive heat. Collier said 8,000 of those prisoners have already been placed in air-conditioned housing, with plans to move the other 5,000 within two years.

The Wallace Pack Unit is one of 75 TDCJ facilities without air conditioning, and heat relief – such as providing ice water and showers – is provided based on outside temperatures. Because air conditioning the prison was also part of the settlement agreement, Judge Ellison instructed the TDCJ to record indoor temperatures at the facilities where the prisoners covered by the Wallace Pack settlement are housed. Yet prison officials admitted they did not do so.

In 2019, state legislators failed to pass two bills to address the situation, including one that would have required the TDCJ to monitor indoor temperatures at state prisons, which can climb into the triple digits. Another bill that would mandate indoor prison temperatures to be kept between 64 and 84 degrees was amended to only require a study. Since 1998, the TDCJ has had at least 23 heat-related prisoner deaths, including 10 during a 2011 heatwave. Spokesman Jeremy Desel said that as of August 28, 2019 there had been 56 heat-related illnesses reported among TDCJ prisoners and staff that year, down from 71 in 2018.

Calling conditions at the Wallace Pack Unit “grotesque,” Judge Ellison accused the TDCJ of setting poor priorities to address a situation where “the stakes could not be higher.”

“For us to need these hearings to seek something as simple as regular temperature readings makes me worry about what else I haven’t discovered yet,” he told Collier.

“We should have been monitoring those [indoor temperatures] all along,” Collier acknowledged, claiming that he had been kept in the dark by unidentified TDCJ employees.

“This is a pattern I’m concerned with,” Ellison countered. “These perfectly appropriate, even pressing questions are invariably met with a response – ‘I don’t know, it was somebody else, we’re not sure, you assume too much.’ When you’re talking about life and death, those are not sufficient answers. They’re just not.”

Yet even air conditioning prisoners’ housing areas does not solve all heat-related problems. On July 19, 2019, the family of TDCJ prisoner Seth Donnelly received a call from the prison’s chaplain saying Donnelly had been transported to a hospital with a core body temperature of 106 degrees after laying scent tracks used to train dogs to track escaped prisoners. The job required Donnelly to wear a padded suit that retained heat, and he had complained of inadequate access to water while working. After he died two days later, an autopsy report listed his cause of death as hyperthermia. [See: PLN, Sept. 2019, p.60].

The issue of prisoners being exposed to excessive heat is not limited to Texas, which is one of 13 state prison systems that lack air conditioning in most prisoner housing areas. In the Florida Department of Corrections (FDOC), prisoners do not even have access to fans.

FDOC secretary Mark Inch recently signaled an openness to a proposal by advocacy group Florida Cares to allow prisoners to purchase plastic, battery-operated personal fans. With the exception of death row, state prisons do not have electrical outlets in housing areas. Even the dorms reserved for cancer and dialysis patients at the FDOC’s Reception and Medical Center in Lake Butler do not have air conditioning. Speaking anonymously, a guard said only two of the units at that facility were air conditioned, and those AC systems were in poor repair and failed often.

Florida prisons do not record temperatures in housing areas. Two petitions on change.org have over 1,200 signatures asking the FDOC to install air conditioning in state prisons.

“Renovations would require significant funding as these renovations are prohibitively expensive in older buildings not designed for modern cooling systems,” said FDOC spokesman Rob Klepper.

Privately-operated prisons in Florida do have air conditioning, and are favored by many prisoners for that reason.

During the four years the TDCJ spent fighting the Wallace Pack Unit class-action suit, it claimed that it would cost $20 million to air condition the facility, and an estimated $2 billion for all 75 of the state’s un-cooled prisons. By the time the case settled, the TDCJ had spent $7 million fighting the lawsuit while the estimated cost to install air conditioning at the Wallace Pack Unit had fallen to about $4 million.

An August 2015 study by attorney Daniel W.E. Holt with the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia Law School found widespread risk factors for illnesses caused by excessive heat among the nation’s 2.2 million prisoners, including advanced age, mental illness, certain medical conditions and some medications.

“If you think about climate change, the prison population probably doesn’t come to mind; but things can get out of hand quickly in summertime,” said Holt. “If it gets too hot, I can put on the air conditioning or go to the movies. In prison, you can’t take as good care of yourself other than ask for water and ice. A lot of people are in danger.”

A recent Prison Policy Initiative (PPI) study found that the 13 states where prisons lack climate control are in the hottest parts of the country – mainly in the South. The study noted that 95% of households in the South have air conditioning, including 90% of households with annual incomes of less than $20,000 – indicating that air conditioning is considered a necessity.

“Prisons are often built of heat-retaining materials which can increase internal prison temperatures,” said PPI policy analyst Alexi Jones. “Because of this, temperatures inside prisons can often exceed outdoor temperatures.”

She also noted that excessive heat can damage the kidneys, liver, heart, lungs and brain, adding that with air conditioning being nearly universal in the South, it should not be considered a privilege or amenity but rather a human right.

“The lack of air conditioning in Southern prisons creates unsafe – even lethal – conditions,” Jones said. “Prolonged exposure to extreme heat can cause dehydration and heat stroke, both of which can be fatal. States and counties that deny air conditioning to incarcerated people should understand that, far from withholding a ‘luxury,’ they are subjecting people to cruel and unusual punishments, and even handing out death sentences.”

Heat-related issues in prisons and jails are not limited to the South. From July 19 to 21, 2019, staff from the New York City Board of Corrections (BOC) conducted unannounced tours of some of the city’s jails during a heat emergency declared by Mayor Bill de Blasio. They reported excessive heat in both non-air-conditioned and air conditioned areas housing heat-sensitive prisoners.

The investigators also noted that some jail staff were not taking temperature readings in housing units, some administrators were unaware of which prisoners were heat sensitive and where they were housed, and some prisoners were not allowed showers to keep cool. Four of the five jail units without air conditioning did not have ice despite regular ice deliveries having been logged on two of the units.

The BOC report found that heat mitigation efforts were insufficient in the areas without air conditioning, stating, “people should not be detained or required to work under these conditions.” It recommended air conditioning all of the city’s jails and decreasing the jail population.

New York City’s Department of Correction said it was unaware of any health concerns during the summer heatwave, according to press secretary Jason Kersten, who promised that the agency takes “the health and safety of those in our custody seriously” and is “looking into these reports to address any issues accordingly.”

In July 2019, nearly two dozen people protested outside the Bergen County Jail in Hackensack, New Jersey after the facility’s air conditioning failed and prisoners were forced to endure extreme temperatures. The AC repairs dragged on for weeks. The 1,150-bed jail, which houses around 400 immigration detainees in addition to county prisoners, was also under quarantine from July 20 to 29, 2019 due to an outbreak of the mumps.

The air conditioning in part of the 1,800-bed George W. Hill Correctional Facility in Thornton, Delaware failed during the July 2019 heatwave. As a result the temperature soared in the medical unit, solitary confinement and a youthful offender housing area at the prison, which is operated by The GEO Group. When power went out for the entire facility, some interior temperatures reached over 100 degrees. It took seven hours to restore power and more than two days to repair the faulty air conditioner.

Prisoner advocate Jane Dunbar said Blocks B and C and Units 1, 5 and 6 at the prison had been without air conditioning for weeks, and experienced temperatures of up to 110 degrees. She stated several prisoners told her that only hot water was available to drink, adding that the number of prisoners impacted was six times the figure of 28 quoted by prison officials.

The heatwave also caused the families of prisoners incarcerated at the Nottoway County Correctional Center and other Virginia jails and prisons to worry. Adam Young said his son, who was incarcerated at Nottoway, described having to lie on the concrete floor to keep cool in a cell where the temperature reached 125 degrees. He said the jail had a water shortage and prisoners could not shower or flush toilets, and were limited to three small cups of ice a day.

Denny Barger, who had family and friends at Nottoway, said the problems with excessive heat and water restrictions extended to the Buckingham and Augusta Correctional Centers as well. She was concerned for both the prisoners and guards due to high temperatures and limited access to water.

The Virginia Department of Corrections operates 18 facilities without air conditioning. Prisoners’ families disputed the DOC’s claims that staff were using fans, extra ice and water to keep prisoners hydrated.

On June 26, 2019, during “a historic Miami heat wave,” federal prison officials had to relocate 30 prisoners housed at the Federal Correctional Institution in Miami after the prison’s air conditioning failed. They were moved to another facility. FCI Miami was repeatedly cited by federal regulators for failure to perform proper maintenance.

And in one telling incident, even dogs received better treatment than prisoners. An animal rescue group, New Leash on Life, brought six dogs to the North Carolina Correctional Institution for Women in Raleigh in 2015 and 2016, but there was no air conditioning in the housing units. The dogs were removed from the program from May through September due to the extreme temperatures.

“The dogs couldn’t withstand the heat, and it broke our hearts because the women [prisoners] had to,” said Meredith Pope, a member of the rescue group.

According to a spokesman for the North Carolina Department of Public Safety, almost 40 percent of state prisoners are housed in units without air conditioning.

“We provide water and ice to everyone in the facility, use large fans to circulate the air as much as we can and we reduce outside work and activities during heat waves,” said Benita Witherspoon, the warden at the women’s facility in Raleigh.

However, one prisoner said the fans are sometimes turned off for punishment, and are taken away after September 1. In other cases, prisoners have reported being denied ice and cool showers during the summer months, while even in prison units that have air conditioning, staff have set thermostats at temperatures in the 80s. 

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Sources: chron.com, theguradian.com, lubbockonline.com, jacksonville.com, miaminewtimes.com, huffpost.com, wric.com, northjersey.com, wtkr.com, baynews9.com, inquirer.com, wjhl.com, delcotimes.com, thecrimereport.org, nyc.gov, spectrumlocalnews.com, texastribune.com, dallasnews.com, truthout.org, newsobserver.com