Four winters ago, I wrote about the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn torturing its incarcerated citizens by denying them access to heat, power, winter clothes, and warm food during one of the coldest days of the season. While people in jails and prisons were on the verge of freezing to death, they are now boiling in their cells because of sweltering summers. I often think about all of the privileges from which I personally benefit, and having air conditioning in my home is such a blessing throughout the year, and especially in the summer time. I can’t imagine (because I don’t live it) what it’s like to be locked in a cement cell every day without so much as a fan to keep me cool. This scenario is exactly what incarcerated people all across America are suffering through, and many people are dying because of heat in the summers.
There are currently at least 13 states in the US that don’t have central air conditioning in all of their prisons: Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas, and Virginia. It’s no surprise that most of the states with the harshest jail and prison conditions are in the South, where Black and Brown people are disproportionately incarcerated (as they are in all states) in order to continue the system of slavery. Although 95% of Southern households benefit from air conditioning, especially in summers, these primarily Southern states continue to force imprisoned people to suffer in torturous and excruciating living conditions. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, “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.” Only 30 of 109 Texas prisons have air conditioning– an essential tool in the sweltering summer, and incarcerated people in the facilities without AC have said that ice is rationed so harshly that they often buy pieces from each other when they’re denied cold water for days at a time. Other reports have shown that fans are only placed outside of the cells and that correctional officers will often turn them off as retaliation or punishment against those who are incarcerated.
From 2007 till 2014, the University of Texas School of Law’s Human Rights Clinic found that at least 14 incarcerated people died from extreme heat exposure, not just limited to the summer time. However, researchers have found that 14 is a small estimate and that dozens of people in Texas prisons died from 2014-2015. Forcing people to cook alive in their prison cells is an egregious violation of the Eight Amendment, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment. When places like Texas—where summer temperatures reach an upward of 110 degrees every day—deny incarcerated people access to cold water, ice, and air conditioning, they are actively creating barbaric and horrific environments that will force those in cages to do just about anything in order to escape their torture. Just as the people in Brooklyn’s jail screamed for help as they froze in their cells, people in jails and prisons across the hottest states also often cry out for help while their skin cooks in the cement blocks. Incarcerating people in facilities (in general and) without air conditioning is torture, plain and simple. If you live in one of the aforementioned states, or even if you don’t, but you’re fuming at the idea that people are burning in cages everyday during the annual summers, contact your legislators and demand safety practices for all incarcerated community members (and ultimately ask if they will free them all because all forms of policing and incarceration are torture) or more importantly, join an organization to work on collectively freeing folks from the inside.