While sweltering heat in prisons without air conditioning has been an issue in the South, heat waves worsened by climate change are expanding the problem into Northern states.
Michigan, Minnesota, South Dakota, Washington and Wisconsin have seen extreme heat in prisons. Many of these states lack the infrastructure for ventilation or cooling systems capable of managing extreme heat.
“This is not at all an issue that’s confined to what we all think of as the hot states,” David Fathi of the American Civil Liberties Union National Prison Project. “While it may be more common, or more of pressing a problem in the Southern states and the states of the Southwest, this is now truly a national problem.”
Some advocates have argued that hot conditions in prisons constitute “cruel and unusual punishment” prohibited by the Eighth Amendment. The conditions have led to lawsuits and protests across the U.S., reports Stateline.
The lack of air conditioning amid rising temperatures creates challenges: possible heat-related illnesses, increased violent incidents and high staff turnover.
Some states are offering alternative cooling methods such as cooling beds and increased access to water stations or ice; others have allocated funding toward upgrading or building new facilities with air conditioning.
Most states, however, have taken little to no action.
“The absence of air conditioning in prisons and jails is a disaster waiting to happen,” Fathi said. “This is not an issue of comfort or luxury, it is an issue of life and death. … The decision not to air condition these facilities is essentially a decision to let people die.”
A study published in March by PLOS One and written by researchers affiliated with Brown University, Boston University and Harvard University suggests that extreme heat is causing fatalities within prisons across the U.S., offering one of the first pieces of epidemiological evidence linking the climate crisis to prison mortality. The study showed elevated rates of mortality in the Northeast region.
The researchers analyzed deaths in both state-run and privately run prisons during June, July and August from 2001 to 2019. They found that a 10-degree temperature increase above the average correlated with a 5.2% increase in deaths or a 6.7% increase in deaths related to heart disease.
The study also found that a two-day heat wave correlated with a mortality increase of 21% in the Northeast, compared with 0.8% in the Midwest, 1.3% in the South and 8.6% in the West.
The prison population is aging, and about 40% of incarcerated people report having a chronic medical condition, according to estimates released by the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Mental health problems are also prevalent across the prison population.
Psychotropic drugs, which are used to treat some mental illnesses, can exacerbate heat sensitivity because they “reduce the body’s ability to naturally regulate heat and cool down,” said one expert.