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Cruel and Unusual Punishment: Confronting the Crisis of Extreme Heat in America's Prisons

May 23, 2024

Authored by John Fabricius

Extreme Heat in Prisons: A Growing Threat to Health, Safety and Human Rights

Picture this: You are confined to an 8’ x 10’ concrete prison cell with a solid steel door and no window. You are housed in an old, dilapidated facility. There's no air conditioning and outside, the temperature has soared to 115°F. For the past 40 days, the daily high temperature hasn’t dipped below 110°F and the low temps at night have not gone below 95°. Locked in your cell, without even so much as a fan, you watch the walls sweat as you endure internal temperatures exceeding 130°F. It quite literally feels as if you are in hell.  How long could you survive under these conditions? 

This is the grim reality for tens of thousands of incarcerated people across the western and southern United States. In states like Arizona, Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, North Carolina, and Oklahoma, prisons routinely subject people to cruel and dangerous temperatures, often exceeding 120°F. Despite the severe health risks of extreme heat, many of these states with hot climates lack air conditioning in their prisons.

Understanding the Crisis

In states like Arizona, Texas, and Alabama, the lack of adequate air conditioning in prisons exposes incarcerated individuals to extreme temperatures that often exceed 100 degrees Fahrenheit. As climate change intensifies, these conditions are only getting worse, with heatwaves becoming more frequent and severe.

The data shows that Arizona experiences the highest average summer temperatures at 94°F with an average daily high temperature of 107°F and the most extreme heat days per year at 53. Texas has an average summer temperature of 85°F and 43 extreme heat days annually. Louisiana, Florida, Alabama, and Georgia have slightly lower average summer temperatures but are as deadly and oppressive as the others. Louisiana averages 36 extreme heat days annually, while Florida sees around 25. Alabama and Georgia experience the fewest extreme heat days at about 20-21 per year. So in summary, the Temperature Index from highest to lowest for extreme summer heat is:

  • Arizona
  • Texas
  • Louisiana
  • Florida
  • Alabama
  • Georgia

The southwestern states of Arizona and Texas stand out as having the most prolonged stretches of extreme heat in the summer month. However, all of these southern states regularly experience periods of high temperatures and heat waves from June through August.

The Human Impact

This isn't just about comfort; it's about survival. Extreme heat leads to heatstroke, organ damage, dehydration, and even death. It exacerbates chronic illnesses like diabetes and heart disease and exacerbates pre-existing health conditions. It also has profound psychological impacts, increasing irritability and aggression, and hindering mental health.

The human toll of these inhumane conditions is devastating. Constant exposure to oppressive temperatures increases irritability, anxiety, and depression, fueling violence and self-harm. It undermines the very purpose of rehabilitation by making prisons more punitive and dangerous.

Forced Labor in Dangerous Conditions

Incarcerated individuals are often required to perform outdoor labor, even amid dangerous heat waves, and without adequate access to protective clothing, hats, sunblock, or rests in the shade. Forced work in extreme conditions puts prisoners at severe risk of heat-related illnesses and injuries. The combination of hazardous environmental exposures, lack of agency over living conditions, and forced labor amounts to a human rights crisis within the American prison system. Incarcerated people, who are disproportionately from marginalized communities, are essentially trapped in toxic, life-threatening environments with no means of escape or self-protection.

Voices from Inside: Prisoners Describe the Experience

Incarcerated people have described the experience of living in extreme heat as "being locked in hell," "cells are suffocating convection ovens," and "constant misery." In Texas, where most prisons lack air conditioning, at least 23 incarcerated people have died from heat stroke since 1998. In Arizona, where temperatures inside facilities have been recorded as high as 128°F, people have reported watching the soles of their shoes melt to the floor.

The cruelty of forcing human beings to work and live in such conditions is unconscionable. But with climate change driving more frequent and intense heat waves, the problem is only getting worse. States continue to build prisons in inhospitable locations like the remote Arizona desert, intensifying the impacts. Incarcerated people, disproportionately from low-income communities and communities of color, are on the front lines of our climate crisis

The Need for Urgent Action

As climate change continues to drive more frequent and intense heat waves, the inhumane conditions faced by incarcerated individuals in southern prisons will only worsen. Immediate action is needed to protect the health and lives of prisoners, including:

  • Retrofitting facilities with proper air conditioning and ventilation systems
  • Implementing temperature control policies and heat safety protocols
  • Providing adequate access to water, shade, and medical care during extreme heat events
  • Reducing the incarcerated population to alleviate overcrowding and strain on prison infrastructure
  • Relocating prisoners from facilities located on or near toxic sites

Without swift intervention, the deadly combination of extreme heat, environmental hazards, and inhumane conditions will continue to punish and kill incarcerated individuals across the American South. It is a moral imperative to address this crisis and ensure that the basic human rights of all individuals, including those behind bars, are protected.

Our Role and Responsibility

Over the next four months, this blog series will delve deeper into the conditions in specific states, starting with Arizona. We'll examine how extreme heat intersects with issues of racial and economic justice, how it undermines health and rehabilitation behind bars, and what actionable solutions to protect incarcerated individuals from these extreme conditions, including:

  • Infrastructure Improvements: Implementing effective cooling systems in prisons.
  • Legislation: Supporting policies that mandate humane living conditions.
  • Awareness and Advocacy: Raising awareness and mobilizing community action for change.

Join Us in This Fight

We invite you to follow this series, share the stories, and join us as we work to ensure no more lives are lost to preventable conditions. We aim to ignite change and inspire action by bringing these issues to light.

No one should be sentenced to suffer in agonizing and life-threatening conditions. It's time for states to fulfill their constitutional obligations and ensure humane temperatures in all prisons. Basic human dignity demands it. The mission to end mass incarceration and reimagine justice demands it.

Stay tuned for our first post focusing on Arizona's prisons and the real-life impacts of extreme temperatures. We will continue to educate, advocate, and work to bring a future where dignity and safety are guaranteed for all, regardless of where they are.

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The future starts with us.
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