Hot Prisons Could Be Deadly For U.S. Inmates, Advocates Warn
Earlier this year, a prisoner with severe mental illness died in an overheated cell at Rikers Island, the biggest jail in New York City. The exact cause of Jerome Murdough's death is still under investigation, but the temperature in the cell when he was found was at least 100 degrees. His death called renewed attention to a long-standing problem: maintaining reasonable temperatures in jails and prisons.
The high temperatures at some U.S. facilities can form a dangerous — even deadly — combination with the aging inmate population. Medications can make the mentally ill more susceptible to heat, and some prison guards say it's not safe for them either.
Dr. Susi Vassallo grew up in Texas, so she's not afraid of heat. But the physician and NYU medical school professor still remembers her reaction when she stood in an un-air-conditioned prison cell one summer.
"When you closed the ... doors, they had just little dots in 'em, which provided any ventilation from the outside," she said. "It was, even after five minutes ... it was absolutely stifling — it was inconceivable to live there 23 hours a day, day after day."
Vassallo is an expert on heat-related illnesses who is often called to testify in lawsuits about temperatures in jails and prisons. She said that for most people those conditions are uncomfortable, but that those with some health conditions — including high blood pressure and diabetes, or those taking certain medications — can be much more sensitive.
For those prisoners, exposure to heat can lead to long-term health consequences or death. And the numbers of inmates prone to this sensitivity, particularly the elderly and the mentally ill, have been growing.
Prisoners' rights lawyers and others have been arguing, literally for decades, about what constitutes a reasonable temperature. One lawyer, Mercedes Montagnes, filed a lawsuit last year demanding that the heat index — a calculation of heat and humidity — on Louisiana's death row not go above 88 degrees. A judge agreed, according to the Baton Rouge Advocate, and ordered air conditioning installed, but that's on hold as the state appeals the decision.
Montagnes said prisoners have a right to reasonable temperatures and can't escape the heat the way unincarcerated Americans would.
"Those individuals have the ability to go to a freezer, to get cold water, to go to a mall, to go to a movie theater ... to take action in order to mitigate the effect of the heat on them," she said.
The argument for air-conditioning prisons has found allies in some unlikely places. Last year, a group of prison guards from Texas joined a lawsuit against the state's Department of Corrections.
Lance Lowry, a former prison guard in Texas who now works with the guards' union, says the corrections officers have many of the same heat-sensitive health conditions as prisoners — obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, even mental illness.
"Officers frequently suffer from heat cramps and a lot of heat illnesses," Lowry said.
He says prisoners are harder to manage in the heat, too — there are more fights and more psychiatric emergencies.
Texas is among several states facing lawsuits over temperatures in its correctional facilities — of the more than 150,000 prison beds in the state, only about 550 are climate-controlled. Because of that litigation, state officials wouldn't talk on the record, but the state corrections department said in a statement that it is trying to mitigate the high temperatures. Those efforts include purchasing more than $50,000 in industrial-grade cooling fans to test at seven facilities.
Former Texas warden Keith Price, now a professor of criminology and sociology at West Texas A&M University, said that it's important to accommodate heat-sensitive prisoners, but that inmates also need to acknowledge that prison is not a five-star hotel.
"You know, they don't get to go get a cheeseburger whenever they want to, either," Price said. "So, I mean, you know there's a certain amount of things that you give up when you become incarcerated."