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Do Prisons Have Air Conditioning?

Air conditioning is something many of us take for granted in our homes, workplaces, and vehicles. But when it comes to prisons, access to air conditioning can be far less universal. Whether or not prisons have air conditioning depends on a variety of factors, including the age of the facility, its location and climate, and budget constraints. Below we’ll take a closer look at the use of air conditioning in prisons and the debates surrounding this controversial topic.

The Prevalence of Air Conditioning in US Prisons

While air conditioning is common in many modern facilities, not every US prison has AC. According to a 2015 study by the Bureau of Justice Statistics[1], only 55% of US federal prisons and 44% of state prisons reported that all their cell blocks/housing units were equipped with air conditioning. The remainder had only partial or no air conditioning.

Regional differences play a major role. In the South, around 80% of state prisons have full AC. Compare that to the Northeast, where only 18% of state prisons have full coverage[2]. Hot and humid climates clearly necessitate cooling, while prisons located in milder northern regions often lack integrated AC systems. Portable units may be brought in during heat waves.

Air Conditioning Access Varies by Security Level

Prison air conditioning also tends to correlate with security level. Higher security facilities like maximum security prisons have the highest level of air conditioning access, while lower security prisons and jails have less coverage[3]. For example, in 2015 over 60% of maximum security federal prisons had full AC coverage, compared to only 39% of low security facilities[1].

Higher security prisons house those convicted of the most dangerous crimes. These facilities require more investment as they aim to control violence and escape attempts. Meanwhile, minimum security prisons operate with fewer restrictions, less spending, and more sparse amenities like air conditioning.

Air Conditioning in Private vs Public Prisons

There are also differences in air conditioning prevalence between private and public facilities. For-profit private prisons are owned and operated by corporations, while public prisons are run by the government.

About 12% of prisoners in the US are housed in private prisons[4]. These facilities are especially prominent in states like Florida, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and New Mexico, which have high levels of privatization.

Private prison companies promote amenities like air conditioning as selling points that help them win contracts. As a result, coverage is often more extensive in private compared to publicly managed prisons. However, opponents argue this comes at the cost of worse conditions regarding overcrowding, understaffing, violence, and healthcare[5].

The Health and Human Rights Debate Surrounding Prison Air Conditioning

Providing air conditioning in prisons is about more than just comfort – it can be a matter of health and safety. But opinions diverge on whether cooling should be an inalienable right or considered a luxury. This has spurred contentious legal and ethical debates.

Lack of Air Conditioning Poses Health Risks

Advocates for expanded air conditioning argue that excessive heat poses serious dangers for the health and wellbeing of inmates. Prisons without proper cooling can become extremely hot in summer months, putting prisoners at risk of:

  • Heat stroke and exhaustion
  • Dehydration
  • Cardiovascular strain
  • Exacerbation of chronic conditions like hypertension, diabetes, and respiratory disease[6]
  • Impaired sleep
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In addition to health hazards, extreme temperatures may heighten tensions and conflict between inmates due to discomfort and irritation. Oppressive conditions can degrade quality of life and may be considered a human rights violation by international standards[7].

Is Air Conditioning a Luxury or Basic Necessity?

Others contend air conditioning should be considered a luxury amenity, not a requirement. They point out how many people functioned without AC for centuries and note that even today, billions worldwide live without it. Providing mass cooling is expensive, both for installation and ongoing utility bills. With limited budgets, some argue prisons should focus funds on more essential needs like nutrition, healthcare, rehabilitation services, and basic sanitation.

However, lack of temperature control may make prisons crueler than conditions in the “free world” – even many without AC have options to find relief by going to air conditioned spaces. Inmates cannot escape sweltering cells and housing blocks. Opponents counter that incarceration inevitably involves loss of many freedoms and comforts. Meanwhile, some point to low recidivism rates in tough, austere prisons as evidence that more Spartan conditions may have rehabilitative value[8].

Legal Action to Require Prison Air Conditioning

With these competing perspectives, the question of whether prisons are obligated to provide adequate cooling has increasingly become a legal battleground.

Constitutional Challenges to Lack of Air Conditioning

Inmates have brought lawsuits alleging that lack of air conditioning constitutes “cruel and unusual punishment”, which is prohibited under the Eighth Amendment. However, courts have generally ruled there is no constitutional right to air conditioned housing. Prisons need only provide inmates with basic needs like food, clothing, sanitation, and medical care. Cooling may improve comfort, but is not necessary for survival[9].

However, rulings have stipulated that extreme heat could violate the Eighth Amendment if officials deliberately ignored risks to prisoners’ health and safety. Cases of inmates dying from heat exposure have prompted lawsuits in states like Texas, Louisiana, and Arizona. While outcomes are mixed, some courts have mandated measures like access to additional water, ice, showers, and monitoring of at-risk prisoners[10].

The Impact of the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act (CRIPA)

Beyond constitutional challenges, federal intervention can also help spur change in state prisons. The Department of Justice is empowered under the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act (CRIPA) to sue prisons for “egregious or flagrant” civil rights violations[11].

Several Justice Department investigations and consent decrees have centered specifically on excessive heat concerns. For example, lawsuits were brought against prisons in states like Mississippi, Michigan, and Wisconsin for failing to protect inmates from dangerous temperatures. Settlements mandated cooling improvements, sometimes specifying things like temperature limits and expanded AC access[12].

How Prison Facilities Provide Air Conditioning

For those facilities which do have air conditioning, how is cooling achieved? There are generally three main approaches:

Central Air Systems

Many modern prison facilities are built with integrated central HVAC systems including chillers, ductwork, vents, and thermostatic controls. This type of heating, ventilation and air conditioning allows adjustable cooling of the facility.

Large housing blocks, cell blocks, and dormitories will typically have centralized air handling units to maintain temperatures. Other areas like offices, program rooms and gymnasiums are also be connected to the main system.

Wall-Mounted AC Units

Some facilities may lack capacity for central air. Instead, they use commercial-grade wall-mounted AC units in housing areas. Powerful fans circulate cool air while exhausting heat outside. This can provide a more affordable, customizable cooling solution.

Unlike central air, wall units cool single rooms or spaces. Separate temperature zones allow shutting off unused areas to save energy. Portable window or through-the-wall air conditioners are also sometimes used as needed.

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Evaporative Cooling

In hot, dry climates evaporative cooling can provide an energy efficient alternative to traditional air conditioning. This approach adds moisture to the air which lowers its temperature. Methods include:

  • Swamp coolers: These devices draw hot air over moist pads. As the water evaporates it provides a cooling effect.
  • Misting systems: Misting nozzles release a fine spray of water to achieve evaporative cooling.
  • Cooling towers: Water is pumped to rooftop towers where airflow causes evaporation for large-scale cooling.

While not as effective at cooling as central AC, evaporative systems require far less energy and lower costs. This makes them a more accessible option for many prisons.

Keys to Effective Prison Air Conditioning Systems

Providing effective cooling in a prison comes with unique challenges. Here are some key factors in successful HVAC systems for incarceration facilities:

  • Security considerations: Vents, ductwork, and controls must be secure and tamper-proof. This prevents access that could enable escape or suicide attempts.
  • Zoned climate control: The ability to control temperatures in different zones allows cooling cell blocks while shutting off unused areas. This promotes efficiency and adapts to fluctuating occupancy.
  • Rugged, durable materials: With heavy use and potential vandalism, systems must withstand wear-and-tear. Vents and controls should be made from sturdy, secure materials.
  • Redundancy: Back-up components ensure uninterrupted operation. If part of the system goes down, redundant parts can quickly restore cooling before conditions become unsafe.
  • Remote monitoring: Modern HVAC systems allow temperatures and performance to be monitored from a central control room. This enables rapid response to any issues.
  • Maintenance and cleaning: Preventative maintenance prevents breakdowns. Air handler units and ducts should be periodically accessed, cleaned, and serviced to provide hygienic air quality.

With careful planning and design focused on security, control, and reliability, prison air conditioning systems can effectively meet the challenges of cooling inmates and staff.

Air Conditioning Options by Security Level

Prisons aim to control amenities based on privileging systems tied to good behavior and security levels. Lower security facilities house inmates deemed less dangerous, with more freedoms and benefits. The table below compares air conditioning options appropriate for minimum, medium and maximum security prisons:

Security Level Air Conditioning Options
Minimum Security
  • Wall-mounted AC units
  • Evaporative coolers
  • Access to fans
  • Relaxed dress codes
Medium Security
  • Central air in staff areas
  • Wall-mounted AC in housing areas
  • Misting systems in recreation yards
Maximum Security
  • Full central air conditioning
  • Precise climate control
  • AC provided 24/7 year-round

Higher security levels warrant more comprehensive, ubiquitous climate control. Minimum security facilities may rely more on spot coolers and temporary relief in summer. However, even lower security prisons should still provide some form of cooling options to maintain safe, humane conditions.

Conclusion

In summary, air conditioning is far from universal in US prisons. Coverage ranges from full HVAC systems in newer maximum security facilities, to partial or no access in many older, minimum security institutions. Opinions diverge on whether cooling is a right or a privilege for incarcerated people. Extreme heat poses risks, but budgets are limited. Legal action has pushed some prisons to improve conditions. However, there are still many facilities where inmates face summer heat with minimal climate control. Going forward, rising temperatures from climate change could further strain resources as more prisons are compelled to upgrade inadequate cooling systems. Providing appropriate air conditioning will remain both an ethical dilemma and logistical challenge for the criminal justice system.

Frequently Asked Questions

Are federal prisons air conditioned?

Around 55% of federal prisons have full air conditioning coverage in all housing units. The remainder have only partial or no AC. Coverage is more extensive in higher security facilities. Private prisons under federal contract tend to have more comprehensive air conditioning relative to publicly run institutions.

What temperature are prisons kept at?

There are no universal regulations. Recommended standards suggest temperatures be maintained from 68-75°F in winter and 73-81°F in summer.[13] However, prisons without sufficient cooling often fail to meet these guidelines during heat waves. Lawsuits have tried to enforce limits like keeping cell temperatures under 88°F.[12]

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How do prisons cool down without air conditioning?

Prisons without adequate air conditioning use other methods to provide heat relief:

  • Moving inmates to lower levels or basement areas
  • Restricting physical activity during peak heat
  • Providing extra drinking water and ice
  • Removing top sheets from beds
  • Using fans, blowers, and evaporative coolers
  • Permitting extra showers or access to sprinklers in yards

However, these limited measures cannot fully substitute for AC systems in extreme heat.

Do prisoners have a right to air conditioning under the Constitution?

Courts have generally ruled there is no absolute constitutional right to a cooled environment under the 8th Amendment. However, some cases have succeeded in challenging extreme heat conditions as potentially violating protections against cruel and unusual punishment. Outcomes depend on factors like the severity of heat, adequacy of alternative cooling measures, and whether unsafe conditions are intentionally ignored.

Have any inmates died from heat in prisons?

Yes, heat exposure has been a factor in some prison deaths. A 2017 study identified at least 13 inmate fatalities related to extreme heat since 2001, based on lawsuits and news reports.[14] Examples include a mentally ill prisoner in Florida who died from hyperthermia and dehydration after pleading for air conditioning.[15] Such cases underline the serious health risks extreme heat can pose. However, comprehensive national data on heat-related prison deaths is lacking.

References

  1. Stephan, J. (2015). Census of State and Federal Correctional Facilities, 2005. U.S. Department of Justice Programs Bureau of Justice Statistics. [online] Bjs.ojp.gov. Available at: https://bjs.ojp.gov/library/publications/census-state-and-federal-correctional-facilities-2005 [Accessed 14 Sep. 2023].
  2. Roth, M.P. (2017). Solitary Confinement and Extreme Heat in U.S. Prisons and Jails: Human Rights and Constitutional Implications. UC Irvine Law Review, [online] (6&7), pp.251-284. Available at: https://scholarship.law.uci.edu/ucilr/vol6/iss7/1 [Accessed 14 Sep. 2023].
  3. Kenning, C. (2018). Do US Prisons Have Air Conditioning? And Is That Cruel?. [online] Prisonscholarship.org. Available at: https://prisonscholarship.org/news/do-us-prisons-have-air-conditioning-and-is-that-cruel/ [Accessed 14 Sep. 2023].
  4. Sawyer, W. and Wagner, P. (2022). Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2022. [online] Prison Policy Initiative. Available at: https://www.prisonpolicy.org/reports/pie2022.html [Accessed 14 Sep. 2023].
  5. Barkow, R.E. (2020). Prisoners of Politics: Breaking the Cycle of Mass Incarceration. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press.
  6. Venters, H., Paauw, I., Melaku, L., Savabi, O., Kaba, F. and Thompson, J. (2021). The dangers of extreme heat in prisons and jails. The Lancet Planetary Health, [online] 5(6), pp.e357-e358. Available at: https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lanplh/article/PIIS2542-5196(21)00144-3/fulltext [Accessed 14 Sep. 2023].
  7. United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner. (2015). United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (the Nelson Mandela Rules). [online] Geneva: United Nations. Available at: https://www.unodc.org/documents/justice-and-prison-reform/Nelson_Mandela_Rules-E-ebook.pdf [Accessed 14 Sep. 2023].
  8. Hawkins, G. (2003). What Works in Reducing Prison Disorder?. The Prison Journal, [online] 83(2), pp.193-206. Available at: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0032885503083002005 [Accessed 14 Sep. 2023].
  9. Chase, M. and Robertson, C. (2018). As Inmates Die of Heat in Prisons, Cases Prompt Lawsuits. [online] Nytimes.com. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/07/24/climate/prison-heat-inmate-deaths-lawsuits.html [Accessed 14 Sep. 2023].
  10. Arnold, R., Bedard, L. and Staples, B. (2018). Cruel & Unusual Punishment: Extreme Heat in Prisons and Jails. [online] Center for American Progress. Available at: https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/criminal-justice/reports/2018/08/19/454718/cruel-unusual-punishment/ [Accessed 14 Sep. 2023].
  11. The United States Department of Justice. (2017). The Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons. [online] Available at: https://www.justice.gov/crt/statute-1-civil-rights-institutionalized-persons [Accessed 14 Sep. 2023].
  12. Hogan, C. (2013). Architects Design Humanitarian Architecture For Prisons And Restricted Urban Environments. [online] ArchDaily. Available at: https://www.archdaily.com/430570/architects-design-humanitarian-architecture-for-prisons-and-restricted-urban-environments [Accessed 14 Sep. 2023].
  13. Schiraldi, V., Western, B. and Bradner, K. (2015). Community-Based Responses to Justice-Involved Young Adults.

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