Prisons were not designed with the comfort of prisoners in mind. But when something crosses the line from being uncomfortable and starts resulting in actual suffering, it may also cross the line to become cruel and unusual punishment. As it turns out, the design of prisons across the country, particularly in the South and South West, may soon cross the line to be defined as cruel and unusual punishment as these structures were built largely without windows and air conditioning. And summertime temperatures rising year after year, these structures continue to present bigger and bigger threats to the inmates inside.
Hot Temperatures Outside -Even Hotter Inside
Many prisons, including San Diego’s Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility and the Inland Empire’s California Institution for Women, lack air conditioning, at very least in the housing units. More than that, they are designed with little to no air flow, fans or other forms of passive cooling. Add in thousands of bodies as the prisons are packed to capacity and it’s common for buildings often reach temperatures 20 degrees or more above the outside ambient temperature.
This isn’t a big deal on days where it’s 75 degrees or below, but when temperatures start climbing outside, they skyrocket indoors. It is not uncommon for the inside of prisons to reach temperatures over 110 degrees.
Enough Isn’t Being Done
California prisons are required to have a heat plan policy in place, which typically means that on hot days, prison officials urge inmates to reduce their physical exercise, give prisoners ice, more fluids and increased access to showers, and nurses do rounds to check for signs of heat illness. But even when performed properly, these efforts often aren’t enough to stop the dangers of heat illness, but the policies themselves are typically overly broad and often go ignored. For example a prison may provide ice but many inmates report only being given two cups of ice per day, which melt within an hour, and the inmates are still denied access to areas with fans or air conditioning. Many inmates have been known to pour water on the ground from their sinks -or even intentionally overflow their toilet, just so they can lay down in the cool water on the floor of their cell.
During the pandemic, the problem was exacerbated as inmates were confined to their cells, where they could not even seek out a cooler area with increased airflow during the day time.
Prisons are not required to release statistics on the number of inmates who suffer from heat illness and most are mum on the topic, so it’s impossible to know the severity of the problem.
Already, courts in Wisconsin, Arizona, and Mississippi have ruled that keeping prisoners locked up in extremely hot or cold temperatures is a form of cruel and unusual punishment. But adding air conditioning to prisons is a costly, time consuming process that officials simply don’t care much about -especially since it can make officials seem like they are going soft on criminals who are supposed to be getting punished.
Dangers of Exposure to Extreme Heat
The CDC says that temperatures over 90 degrees with high humidity or temperatures over 100 with lower humidity (these temperatures are very common in prisons) can be dangerous since the body works harder to maintain a normal internal temperature. These conditions are likely to result in dehydration and heat exhaustion -both of which can cause in organ damage or death.
And that’s assuming the person in question is a healthy individual. But many inmates have medical conditions or take medications that make them more susceptible to heat illness. In fact, prison inmates are more likely to suffer from blood pressure, heart disease, asthma and diabetes, and be prescribed psychotropic medications than the general public, all of which make people more prone to heat illness.
The Difference Your Defense Makes
While lawmakers need to address these issues and be more stringent about air conditioning inside of prisons and enforcement of the mandatory heat plans, it’s important to keep in mind that the best way an individual can be protected from these dangers is to stay out of prison. A skilled lawyer can mean the difference between incarceration and either house arrest or probation, which in cases where someone is particularly sensitive to high temperatures, can literally mean the difference between life and death in some cases.
If you have been accused of a crime, please call (760) 643-4050 as soon as possible to make a free consultation with Peter M. Liss.