As Hurricane Irma inundated Florida last week, eight senior citizens at a nursing home in the storm’s path died after air conditioning went out and the home’s management failed to make sufficient arrangements for cooling.
The deaths sparked rightful outrage in national and local press. Yet, the issue of Americans living in spaces without air conditioning is hardly a new one.
America’s incarcerated population of over two million people, like its senior citizen population, is especially vulnerable to the conditions that arise from a lack of air conditioning and an extremely high heat index. Restricted in their movement at all hours of the day, heat-stricken inmates in facilities without air conditioning face grueling conditions throughout the long summer months—yet their circumstances rarely garner the same outraged media coverage that similar circumstances, like the ones that caused the nursing home deaths, do.
In July, a video of inmates shouting through the cracks of opened windows in a St. Louis city jail was shared widely on Facebook. The prisoners were heard pleading for help from the jail’s outermost fence. Shouts of “Help us!” and "We ain’t got no A.C.” drew attention to a problem that appears to plague many jails and prisons in the country’s hottest states.
In spite of a heat index which frequently surpassed 110 degrees in July, the St. Louis City Workhouse facility, which houses more than 1,100 prisoners, had no air conditioning when the video was recorded or, for that matter, in any of the preceding summers. After public outrage over the prisoners’ conditions and a July 21 demonstration outside the jail, the city spent about $75,000 on temporary air conditioning units which were delivered to the facility on July 24. Still, the lack of air conditioning in correctional facilities across the country raises fundamental—and constitutional—questions about the living conditions of America’s incarcerated population.
Just as public backlash over the conditions in the St. Louis jail took off, in Texas, U.S. District Judge Keith Ellison ruled in a scathing one hundred-page decision that the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) must provide air-conditioning for heat-sensitive inmates at the Pack Unit facility outside Houston. Ellison gave Texas fifteen days to come up with a plan to ensure that 475 vulnerable inmates live in areas with temperatures below eighty-eight degrees. His ruling also mandated that one thousand other prisoners have access to indoor respite areas, where they are able escape the wrenching heat of the rest of the building where they eat, live, and sleep.
Ellison’s ruling came after six inmates at the minimum-security facility filed suit against the state in 2014. In the decision, he states, “Each summer, Plaintiffs face a substantial risk of serious harm from the sweltering Texas heat, and Defendants have been deliberately indifferent in responding to this risk.”
Ellison continued, writing, “Prisoners are human beings with spouses and children who worry about them and miss them. Some of them will likely someday be shown to have been innocent of the crimes of which they are accused. But, even those admittedly guilty of the most heinous crimes must not be denied their constitutional rights. We diminish the Constitution for all of us to the extent we deny it to anyone.”
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, however, believes the state is doing what is constitutionally required to provide inmates with adequate living conditions. (The Eighth Amendment, of course, states that “cruel and unusual punishments” shall not be inflicted.)
Promising to appeal the federal judge’s decision, Paxton said, “Texas taxpayers shouldn’t be on the hook for tens of millions of dollars to pay for expensive prison air-conditioning systems, which are unnecessary and not constitutionally mandated.”
No matter the ultimate verdict in the years-long legal battle, though, overheating remains a serious issue in Texas’ correctional facilities. According to TDCJ, about 75 percent of state prisons and jails don’t offer AC for inmates' housing areas. The Pack Unit lawsuit alleges this has led to twenty-three deaths since 1998.
A 2014 report by the Human Rights Clinic at the University of Texas Law School reached similar conclusions, finding that at least fourteen Texas prisoners died from overheating between 2007 and 2014.
Across the country, stories of overheating—and heat-related deaths—in jails and prisons abound. In 2014, a mentally ill veteran incarcerated at Rikers Island in New York City died from exposure to extreme heat.
A recent Phoenix New Times investigation found that temperature logs produced by the Arizona Department of Corrections in an ongoing legal battle indicate indoor temperatures frequently surpassed one hundred degrees in state jails and prisons throughout this year’s summer months. The Times also reported that at least one facility was likely fabricating its indoor temperature readings—around the same time American Airlines was cancelling flights out of Phoenix because of a heat wave.
Last year, the New Orleans-based Times-Picayune reported that Louisiana’s refusal to air condition the State Penitentiary at Angola cost the Louisiana taxpayers over $1 million in legal fees—roughly four-times the estimated cost to simply install air conditioning in the facility in the first place. In place of air conditioning, the state allowed inmates one cold shower a day, furnished cells with ice chests, and placed fans outside. A federal judge ruled that such measures could be satisfactory to improve living conditions in the state facilities.
Still, as Judge Ellison pointed out in his narrow-ruling on the Texas facility, deaths and complications caused by overheating in jails and prisons across the country are probably vastly underestimated and underreported. The desperate condition of potentially hundreds of thousands of inmates across America has thus far received only sparse media coverage. To date, there have been no comprehensive investigations into overheating in America’s correctional facilities.
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