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.

13 famously hot states lack universal A/C in their prisons

While there are no national statistics on air conditioning in prison, we found that at least 13 states in the hottest regions of the country lack universal air conditioning in their prisons:

  • Alabama
  • Arizona
  • Florida
  • Georgia
  • Kansas
  • Kentucky
  • Louisiana
  • Mississippi
  • Missouri
  • North Carolina
  • South Carolina
  • Texas
  • Virginia

For more information on these states, see the appendix.

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:

A chart showing the percentage of people incarcerated in Texas with taking high blood pressure medication, psychiatric medication, asthma, and 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.


  1. 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.

State 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)


Alexi Jones is a Policy Analyst at the Prison Policy Initiative. (Other articles | Full bio | Contact)

13 responses:

  1. Charma Craven says:

    Last summer when the ice machines broke down in a Kansas prison, it was intense. A riot almost broke out over that.

  2. D says:

    My son is in an Alabama prison. Not only is the heat cruel, it also causes the inmates to be more irritable which in turn causes more violence. They sleep on plastic mats and wake up in a pool of sweat. My son stays sick as do others.

  3. Lisa Martinez says:

    I would just like to say California prisons also have no air conditioning. No matter what they are still humans.. this is inhuman at the end of the day they all have loved ones. In visiting rooms also they make it very difficult and uncomfortable to visit your loved ones with no air conditioning and the weather is 112 or so.. thank you for your time god bless

  4. Verge Belanger says:

    Thanks. Wish I could reply on the facebook post to counter a hate-filled comment, but there was no reply tag to post on.

  5. Linda Brown says:

    My son suffers every summer from the heat. He has heart issues & I worry every year! I have trouble in the summers as well but I use the simple & very inexpensive cool wraps. They are cloth which have gel in them & once immersed in water they swell & hold the coolness within the cloth. They can be wrapped around the neck & they help very much to keep the person cool. They are not long enough to be risk & the gel is harmless. I’m wondering if there is a way that we could somehow get the prisons who do not have A/C to allow the inmates to purchase some of these? They could make them available & allowable through the prison catalogs? Can anyone help me figure out a way to present this idea to the prisons? Thank you for any input you may offer!

  6. Pam says:

    This is absolutely terrible. I actually sent an email to the Bureau of Prisons a few minutes ago as a result of an article I read on this very subject recently. Everyone should be outraged!! If someone is locked up, they’re serving time. That is, they’ve been convicted and sentenced. So, any suffering above and beyond a state sanctioned sentence, in my humble opinion, smells like an atrocity. Everyone should be concerned about this situation. As an African American, I am particularly concerned because the majority of the nation’s prisons are full of men of color which is why, I believe, they’re being made to suffer in this way.

  7. Karen Cohen says:

    Lanesboro Correctional Mens Institute in Polkton County has no air conditioning. My fiancee is saying he’s having terrible heat rashes from this. Half of his body is covered with heat rash! He says that himself and all the inmates all sweat profusely all of the time and it smells and there’s also mold. They are limited to time outside but the inside still feels like 100 degrees. They were given some fans and Ice water. That’s not enough. That’s also why no one wants to work there. There are mobile a/c units they can be using! This is cruel and unusual punishment. Please do something this is the 20th Century!

  8. Gary Jones says:

    I was in tdcj and it was really hot. I had several cellies die of the heat.

  9. Thomas wood says:

    Air conditioners for people pay for it. So is ice. I don’t feel I should have to pay for air conditioning for prisons. Somebody should have behaved

  10. Mary says:

    Was in NC for an entire summer at the NCCIW, the main women’s prison in Raleigh. If you would like to contact me regarding a class action lawsuit against the NCDPS, please contact me on my Facebook..

  11. T. M. Warren says:

    Reading this article really had me thinking. I like to look at things from both sides. Law abiding citizens have gone with out central heat and air for many years for various reasons, broken systems, cant afford it, elderly, poverty etc. I’ve known more than a few people who have gone without central air and heat. It was hard and uncomfortable and thank God none of them had any health problems.
    I think some type of contract or system could be put in place for employment camps. Employment camps that would allow incarcerated people to work doing some type of labor such as: farming, road maintenance, cabinetry, assembly etc. The majority of the funds could be used for AC installations and the running of such systems. It would also take up alot of countless hours of being sedentary. They say an idle mind is the devil’s playground.
    The Contractor would I’m sure benefit from the decreased rate in labor costs and the convicted is working and somewhat paying for his climate controlled stay or at least a small portion of it. Pending on the contract or possibly multiple contracts, there may even be some money for rehabilitation or re-entry programs.
    I do believe that every prisoner should have to work during their incarceration. If there is a mental condition that would not allow them to, well the probably need to be in a state run pyshiatric hospital and not a prison. There are jobs even for those with physical ailments…stuffing envelopes
    (Some companies still do that) If your truly passionate about it……come up with a plan…present it!!!!! Start a petition….where there’s a will there is a way. There is definitely going to be a split opinion to this subject. However, if the prisoners have to pay for the cost and they had a system where they could… it benefits us as taxpayers, the prison staff, the contractors and the prisoners….why not?

  12. globaltel says:

    I would hope no human would be supportive of the barbaric and inhumane practices of torture. But here we are. This is why we can’t have nice things. Ignoring the corruption and widespread suffering of the human race as a whole. Thanks for sharing this article.

  13. Jailaid says:

    The lawmakers should established prison standards and policies that must be met to provide a reasonable environment for reform. This is absolutely necessary.

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