by Kevin W. Bliss
The North Carolina General Assembly approved a $30 million budget to air condition all state prisons in late 2021, but none of it had been spent by May 2022. That left about 15,400 of some 37,000 prisoners held by the state Department of Public Safety (DPS) to face the oncoming summer with nothing more than a ceiling fan to circulate the hot and humid air.
Director of Prisons Kenneth Lassiter insisted that he has never heard of a prisoner dying or suffering heat stroke from a lack of AC during his 29 years working at DPS. But he surely knows that the vacancy rate for DPS guards spikes as high as 33% in summer months.
Summer 2022 saw record numbers of days with temperatures at or above 90°F: There were 37 in Greensboro, 69 in Charlotte, and 81 in Raleigh. Even mountainous Asheville notched nine of these scorchers. And scientists predict more extreme temperatures due to global climate change.
Medical experts say excessive heat exposure can cause muscle cramps, nausea, dizziness, or fainting, leading to heat exhaustion, stroke, and even death. Pregnant women and the elderly are most susceptible. At Raleigh’s North Carolina Correctional Institution for Women, only a quarter of the beds are in air-conditioned housing areas. It’s too hot even for dogs; “New Leash on Life,” a program that brought service dogs to the prison for training, was abandoned after just two years due to the ill effects of high heat on the animals.
“I think the main concern was for the elderly population that we really took care of,” said Miea Walker, a former prisoner who is now criminal justice manager for the nonprofit Forward Justice. “We would put bags of ice on them, or go get like a cold wash cloth, just to make sure they’re okay.”
The office of Gov. Roy Cooper (D) said it hoped to have three of the state’s 39 prisons fully air-conditioned as soon as January 2023.
“To not have air conditioning in North Carolina in the summer is pretty uncomfortable,” said Duke Health physician Michele Casey. “Whether you’re talking about your prisoners, or your prison guards, everybody’s going to be at risk.”
Sources: Greensboro News & Record, WBTW, WRAL, WUNC
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