Judges from Arizona to Mississippi to Wisconsin have declared over the years that the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution forbids incarceration in decidedly hot or cold temperatures.
But prison reform activists encounter deep resistance to alleviate the hot and musty environments for prisoners.
A lawyer, Mercedes Montagnes, who represents three inmates with health issues and challenging environment issues says,
“It’s almost impossible for courts to deny the constitutional violation because extreme heat undoubtedly exposes individuals to substantial risk of serious harm. Now what we’re grappling with is the remedy.”
Officials offered a range of reasons for the lack of air-conditioning and for the reliance instead on cold showers, cold liquids, and chilly fans to help prisoners manage in the blistering heat.
Most contend that cooling systems are prohibitively expensive to install, particularly in older facilities, which means it’s coming out of taxpayers’ pockets.
In sweltering states like Louisiana and Texas—where they’re notorious for throwing down the hammer on criminals—it is believed to be politically dangerous to coddle prisoners.
Jim Willett, the director of the Texas Prison Museum said:
“For the first 20 years of my life, I lived in a house with no air-conditioning, I just have a hard time sympathizing with anybody over air-conditioning. [At times I chose to sleep] on the hard floor, in spite of the risk of bites from fire ants, because the floor is slightly cooler than their beds.”
“However, Jason Clark, a spokesman for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice said, “the well-being of staff and offenders is a top priority for the agency and we remain committed to making sure that both are safe during the extreme heat.”
The disputes surrounding the climate of modern incarceration can be partly traced to 1981, when the Supreme Court concluded that, “the Constitution does not mandate comfortable prisons.”
Of course this has been interpreted many different ways over the last 35 years.
In Texas, state regulations require that the temperature in county jails “shall be reasonably maintained between 65 degrees Fahrenheit and 85 degrees Fahrenheit in all occupied areas.”
However, in Louisiana, the placement of a city or parish border can dictate the relative comfort of a night spent in a local lockup. Pretrial inmates in Jefferson Davis Parish, where the heat index on a recent afternoon hit 106 degrees, are cooled only by fans; no air-conditioning is used.
The chief sheriff’s deputy, Chris Ivey, of the Jefferson Davis Parish in Louisiana commented on this issue by saying, “We don’t want to make it real comfortable for them because we don’t want them to want to come back. We try to get it and keep it at a level that it’s comfortable enough that they can survive.”
However, Keith M. Cole, a man who will be serving a life sentence for murder and is being treated for heart disease and diabetes said:
“Once these buildings heat up in the summertime, they never really do ever cool back down again. Air-conditioning to me wouldn’t be a comfort. It’s a necessity — it’s a medical necessity. This isn’t about comfort. This is about life or death.”
Ironically, in the Jefferson Davis Parish jail, they recently began using electronic features within the jail which require being kept cool to remain operational. So in the case of the prisoners there, they will be forced to have air-conditioning.
The debate over whether felons deserve air-conditioning is a contentious and interesting discussion. On one hand, you don’t want to make it too comfortable, but on the other hand, it could be dangerous for inmates with severe medical conditions.
But it’s not a right – it’s a privilege.
Where do you stand on this debate?