Those who break the law are sent to prison. But what does prison really look like for most prisoners? They have certain rights to ensure that they are comfortable while they serve their time. The Eighth Amendment prohibits prisoners from experiencing cruel and unusual payment.
So, what’s considered a luxury and what’s considered a requirement?
Some would argue that AC is a luxury. Sure, in places like New York and Michigan, it might be. But what about some of the hotter places in the U.S., like Texas?
USA Today recently covered a story about a prisoner by the name of Quintero Jones dying in a South Texas prison. The 37-year-old was already asthmatic and suffered from high blood pressure. And in July 2015, he suffered an asthma attack caused by the heat baking in through the cinder-block walls. And his emergency inhaler had been taken away earlier in the day.
A cellmate yelled that he was dying. And it took over 20 minutes for a guard to check on him. When he was finally brought out of his cell, he began vomiting – and finally collapsed. The staff performed CPR for 24 minutes. Only then was he finally transported to a hospital. It was there that he was pronounced dead.
Had the prisoner cells been air-conditioned, Quintero Jones may have lived – and he could have lived out his sentence and been released.
The question is – did Jones suffer cruel and unusual punishment by not being given an air-conditioned cell?
Texas prisons have added more air-conditioned beds since 2015 – and there are plans to add even more.
The harsh reality is that only about 30 percent of the 100 prison facilities across the state of Texas are fully air-conditioned. Texas Prisons Community Activists and the Texas A&M University Hazard Reduction and Recovery Center have released a report with a number of startling statistics.
Texas isn’t the only one without AC, either. At least 44 states don’t have universal air conditioning in the prisons. And many of those states report high temperatures throughout the year, too.
With the impact of climate change, hotter temperatures are being seen with each passing year. So, how hot is too hot?
Many advocates for the incarcerated have said that prison infrastructures are ill-equipped to address the problem. More problems are likely to surface.
The issue of “cruel and unusual punishment” has already been addressed by advocates. The director of the ACLU’s National Prison Project, David Fathi, has said it’s time to question our values. “Whether we as society find it acceptable to torture incarcerated people and to expose them to conditions that we know are going to kill at least a few of them and are going to cause serious injury to some additional people.”
Only four of 26 state correctional facilities in Alabama have AC. And only 24% of the state-run facilities in Florida have AC.
Tennessee is the only state to have reported that all of its prisons were fully air-conditioned. And there are a few other states that say they have nearly full air conditioning or utilize other cooling methods to reduce the temperatures when they are on the rise.
Alaska and Montana have no air conditioning in any of their facilities. Betsy Holley, a spokesperson for Alaska’s Department of Corrections, makes the argument that the climate doesn’t call for having AC.
For Fathi, that’s an insufficient argument because of the realities of climate change. He feels that it will be an issue at some point – and all states need to begin to plan accordingly.
Julie Skarha, a researcher with Brown University explains, “When we think about how climate change is going to continue to affect people who are incarcerated, we will also be thinking about the places that haven’t historically acclimated to the heat. They’re going to be even more at risk without that infrastructure and the resources.”
It looks like Biden’s infrastructure bill needs to start focusing more heavily on the prison system.