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Animal Shelters Provide Cooler Temperatures Than Florida Prisons in Summer

With the heat of summer’s arrival, Florida prisoners endure living in outdated infrastructure. The Florida Department of Corrections (FDC), in a July 14, 2020 email to prisoners, said it “is making efforts to ease the negative impact of extreme heat in the coming months.” That email was sent shortly after Gov. Ron DeSantis eliminated funding for a prison modernization plan.

To assure prisons can endure hurricanes and heavy use, they are made of concrete and steel, which makes them heat sinks. “Prisons are mostly built from heat-retaining materials, which can increase internal prison temperatures. Because of this, temperatures inside prisons often exceed outdoor temperatures,” said Alexi Jones, a policy analyst with Prison Policy Initiative. “Moreover, people in prison do not have the same cooling options that people on the outside do.”

Summer is the hardest time of year for Florida prisoners. With temperatures regularly in the low to upper 90s and heat indexes that well exceed 100 degrees, living and sleeping in a Florida prison tests one’s mettle to extremes that not even domesticated animals must endure.

Florida law provides that the purpose of prison is punishment, so amenities such as air conditioning are not politically correct. Units that have cooling systems are reserved for geriatric prisoners or those with mental or physical illnesses. Ironically, Florida law makes it illegal to operate an animal shelter unless it is air conditioned.

Former FDC Secretary Julie Jones vowed to install air conditioning in all prisons upon her appointment, but fiscal realities and a lack of political will halted further action.

“Renovations would require significant funding as these renovations are prohibitively expensive in older buildings not designed for modern cooling systems,” said FDC spokesman Rob Klepper. Most Florida prisons “were built prior to air-conditioning being commonplace but were designed to facilitate airflow that provides natural cooling.” In dorms without air conditioning, multiple fans and air conditioning are available, he said.

The reality is much different. What little relief is afforded prisoners are fans that often only cover a small portion of the dorm. Exhaust fans pull in hot air through the windows. Budget crunches of the past have resulted in some prisons replacing broken water coolers with “bubblers” that issue tap water. The water cooler in my Florida dorm has been broken for two summers now, so a cold drink of water has been out of the question.

As plumbing mixing valves regulate the water temperature, showers remain at 120 degrees year round. Thus, not even a cold shower is an option to temporarily escape the suffocating summer heat.

Klepper said prisoners have access to AC in the buildings such as the chapel, medical, classification, and buildings designed for classification. What he did not mention is that accessing those buildings without an appointment or proper authorization will result in disciplinary action. Even when allowed in such buildings, the visit is restricted to the time needed for being there.

Florida legislators are aware of the conditions and long-deferred maintenance issues. “It’s really crisis to crisis,” said Sen. Jeff Brandes, who chairs the Senate subcommittee on criminal justice issues. To address the crisis, Florida legislators included $2 million to create a modernization master plan. DeSantis vetoed that line item, along with $28 million to provide infectious disease drug treatment for prisoners.

“The governor has tough choices to make,” Brandes said. DeSantis, however, approved a much needed pay raise for guards and a $17.3 million pilot program to transition some guards from 12 hour shifts to 8.5 hour shifts.

Meanwhile, FDC said in its email to prisoners that it would focus on increasing ventilation in dorms by cleaning the existing structures, implement a seasonal menu to reduce radiant heat, provide “cool water,” post instructions to guard against heat stroke, and act to protect working prisoners from the heat.

For prisoners, relief from the summer heat is done the old fashioned way: pray for rain. “Animals get air conditioning in a shelter, but people can’t?” asked Cynthia Cooper, whose husband is serving time at Lake Correctional Institution. “I would challenge any lawmaker to spend one 24-hour period in a dorm during the month of July.”