Cruel and unusual punishment: When states don’t provide air conditioning in prison
13 states in the hottest parts of the country lack universal A/C in their prisons. We explain the consequences.
by Alexi Jones, June 18, 2019
Air conditioning has become nearly universal across the South over the last 30 years, with one exception: in prisons. Although 95% of households in the South use air conditioning, including 90% of households that make below $20,000 per year,1 states around the South have refused to install air conditioning in their prisons, creating unbearable and dangerous conditions for incarcerated people.
The lack of air conditioning in Southern prisons creates unsafe—even lethal—conditions. Prolonged exposure to extreme heat can cause dehydration and heat stroke, both of which can be fatal. It can also affect people’s kidneys, liver, heart, brain, and lungs, which can lead to renal failure, heart attack, and stroke.
Many people in prison are especially susceptible to heat-related illness, as they have certain health conditions or medications that make them especially vulnerable to the heat. Conditions such as diabetes and obesity can limit people’s ability to regulate their body heat, as can high blood pressure medications and most psychotropic medications (including Zoloft, Lexapro, Prozac, Cymbalta, and more but excluding the benzodiazepines). Old age also increases risk of heat-related illness, and respiratory and cardiovascular illnesses, such as asthma, are exacerbated by heat.
In Texas, a state that has air conditioning in all inmate housing areas in only 30 of its 109 prisons, a high percentage of incarcerated people are particularly vulnerable to heat:
- 21% are prescribed psychotropic medications
- 19% are taking medication for high blood pressure
- 19% have asthma
- 7% are older than 55
- 5% have diabetes.
The structure of prisons and prison life can also make incarcerated people more vulnerable to heat. Prisons are mostly built from heat-retaining materials which can increase internal prison temperatures. Because of this, the temperatures inside prisons can often exceed outdoor temperatures. Moreover, people in prison do not have the same cooling options that people on the outside do. As Prison Legal News explains in a 2018 article on prison air conditioning litigation, “people outside of prison who experience extreme heat have options that prisoners often lack – they can take a cool shower, drink cold water, move into the shade or go to a place that is air conditioned. For prisoners, those options are generally unavailable.” Even fans can even be inaccessible. For example, despite the fact that incarcerated people in Texas are not paid for their labor, purchasing a fan from the Texas prison commissary costs an unaffordable $20.
The lack of air conditioning in prisons has already had fatal consequences. In 2011, an exceptionally hot summer in Texas, 10 incarcerated people died from heat-related illnesses during a month-long heat wave. (It’s just not incarcerated people who get sick from the heat in the state’s prisons. In August 2018, 19 prison staff and incarcerated people had to be treated for heat-related illnesses.) As David Fathi, director of the American Civil Liberties Union National Prison Project, explained to The Intercept, “Everyone understands that if you leave a child in a car on a hot day, there’s a serious risk this child could be injured or die. And that’s exactly what we’re doing when we leave prisoners locked in cells when the heat and humidity climb beyond a certain level.”
Courts in Wisconsin, Arizona, and Mississippi have ruled that incarceration in extremely hot or cold temperatures violates the Eighth Amendment. But these court cases have not had a national impact on air conditioning in prisons. As Alice Speri of The Intercept explains, “There’s no national standard for temperatures in prisons and jails, and as jurisdiction over prisons is decentralized among states and the federal system, and jurisdiction over jails is even more fragmented among thousands of local authorities across the country, fights over excessive heat in detention can only be waged facility by facility.” As a result, incarcerated people in the South are subjected to unbearable conditions that violate their basic human and constitutional rights. Benny Hernandez, an incarcerated man in Texas, describes how torturous heat gets in prisons: “It routinely feels as if one’s sitting in a convection oven being slowly cooked alive. There is no respite from the agony that the heat in Texas prisons inflicts.”
Refusing to install air conditioning is a matter not just of short-term cost savings, but of appearing tough on crime. State and local governments go to astonishing lengths to avoid installing air conditioning in prisons. In 2016, Louisiana spent over $1 million in legal bills in an attempt to avoid installing air conditioning on death row, an amount four times higher than the actual cost of installing air conditioning, according to an expert witness. Similarly, in 2014, the people of Jefferson Parish, LA only voted to build a new jail after local leaders promised there would be no air conditioning.
With air conditioning nearly universal in the South, air conditioning should not be considered a privilege or amenity, but rather a human right. States and counties that deny air conditioning to incarcerated people should understand that, far from withholding a “luxury,” they are subjecting people to cruel and unusual punishments, and even handing out death sentences.
The U.S. Energy Information Administration’s 2015 Residential Energy Consumption Survey has data on air conditioning use by income and geographical region. This Agency uses the Census Bureau’s definition of the South: Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana, Texas, and Oklahoma plus Washington D.C. Nationwide, air conditioning usage is slightly lower than in just the South, with 87% of households (and 80% of people making below $20,000 per year) using air conditioning nationwide. . ↩
Examining local and national news stories, we identified 12 states in the South and Midwest that lack universal air conditioning and identified only Arkansas as having universal air conditioning.
|Alabama||Prisons in Alabama do not have air conditioning. (Source)|
|Arizona||Many prisons in Arizona lack air conditioning. (Source)|
|Arkansas||Prisons have had air conditioning since the 1970s. (Source)|
|Florida||State run prisons do not have air conditioning, but private prisons in the state do have air conditioning. (Source)|
|Georgia||Most prisons have air conditioning, but some do not. (Source)|
|Kansas||Most prisons do not have air conditioning. 70 percent of incarcerated people are in buildings without air conditioning. (Source)|
|Kentucky||Most prisons do not have air conditioning. (Source)|
|Louisiana||Most prisons do not have air conditioning. (Source)|
|Mississippi||Most inmate housing in Mississippi has no air conditioning. (Source)|
|Missouri||Some prisons lack universal air conditioning. (Source)|
|North Carolina||Most prisons have air conditioning, but 10 facilities do not. (Source)|
|South Carolina||Most prisons have air conditioning, but some facilities do not. (Source)|
|Texas||30 of the 109 state prisons in Texas have air conditioning in all housing areas. (This is despite the fact county jails in the state are statutorily required keep their temperatures between 65 and 85 degrees). (Source)|
|Virginia||Half of prisons have no air conditioning. (Source)|