A Prison Term Shouldn’t Mean Cooking to Death

December 27th, 2017 by Attorney Dan Carman

The past three years have been the hottest on record, worldwide, according to the New York Times. Temperatures are expected to increase over time due to global warming with western Kentucky potentially having highs in the 90’s 120 days of the year from 2080 to 2099, reports the U.S. Global Change Research Center. While temperatures climb, the biggest concern of most people may be increased air conditioning costs. But for some of us without air conditioning, like those housed in Kentucky prisons, increased heat could be deadly.

Most of those housed in Kentucky’s prisons, and across the nation, lack air conditioning. Some areas of the country have temperatures exceeding 100 degrees, with heat indexes hitting 150 degrees for days at a time, reports the Marshall Project. Our bodies can try to cool themselves by sweating and dilating blood vessels, but this becomes less effective when the humidity is high and sweat can’t evaporate. If someone’s body temperature becomes uncontrollably high, lethal heat stroke can occur.

Some prisoners are more susceptible to high heat and humidity than others. Many medications, especially those used to treat mental illness and high blood pressure, interfere with the body’s ability to cool itself.

Air conditioning can address the problem, but the nation’s prison systems aren’t eager to install it in correctional facilities, claiming it is too expensive. There’s little political will to spend money to cool off prisoners. Like so many other social justice issues, in the absence of action by legislators, the issue is being addressed in the courts.

Courts in Arizona, Mississippi, Louisiana and Wisconsin have sided with prisoners suing officials over extreme heat. Five years ago a federal judge ordered the Louisiana State Penitentiary to lower temperatures on death row to 88 degrees. At times the heat index had reached 109 where inmates were housed. The judge in the Louisiana case has complained that the money the state has spent to fight the lawsuit could have paid for air conditioning for the unit in question, reports the Times Picayune.

It has been estimated that at least twenty prisoners in Texas have died from the heat since 1998, and the true number is probably higher. Some probably died due to heart attacks and other health problems that were worsened by constant exposure to high heat. The number of prisoner suicides increase during hotter months, and often those with mental illness stop taking medication because it affects their ability to cool off. As a result, violence by these inmates on other inmates and correctional officers increases.

Support for addressing the issue comes from groups not normally associated with advocating for prisoner welfare — correctional officers and their unions. They are stuck in these steamy conditions along with inmates, though after a shift they may return to air-conditioned homes in air-conditioned vehicles.

The Kansas Corrections Secretary, Joe Norwood, told legislators in August that plans for a new state prison include air conditioning because, without it, facilities are “extremely uncomfortable” for staff. There are no such plans in Texas. The head of the state’s correctional officer union, Lance Lowry, is quoted by the Marshall Project as saying, “I don’t have love for these people…(but) the incarceration is their punishment, not cooking them to death.”

If you or a family member has been charged with a crime, Lexington, KY, criminal defense attorney Dan Carman can help. Based in Lexington, he represents clients throughout Kentucky who find themselves on the wrong side of the law. Let him work with you to plan the aggressive defense that you will need. Use the convenient online inquiry form or call (859) 685-1055 for a free initial consultation.