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Inmates in Texas and Florida are at the greatest danger for rising temperatures and heat waves, which can be life-threatening.
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Inmates in Texas and Florida are at the greatest danger for rising temperatures and heat waves, which can be life-threatening.

New research has discovered that the ageing inmates in America’s prisons are at risk of potentially lethal heat as the climate crisis continues to worsen, due to the rising temperatures and humidity levels within their confined environments.

From 1982 to 2020, nearly 45% of detention centers in the US experienced an increase in days with extreme heat, with the southern region being the most heavily impacted. In particular, individuals housed in state-operated facilities in Texas and Florida face the greatest risk of dangerous weather conditions.

“The term ‘hazardous heat’ pertains to the total days in a year where the maximum indoor wet bulb globe temperature exceeds 28C (82F), which is considered the safe threshold for humid-heat according to the US National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (Niosh). This applies to acclimated individuals performing moderate workloads.”

According to a study published in Nature Sustainability, in facilities where detainees experienced hazardous days, the average (mean) number of hot-humid days increased from 77 to 100 per year over four decades.

According to David C. Fathi, director of the National Prison Project at the American Civil Liberties Union, prisoners are unable to defend themselves from dangerous temperatures and humidity levels without proper climate control. Constructing a prison without climate control is akin to building one without fire exits – a recipe for disaster.

The present danger to incarcerated individuals is potentially even more severe than what the analysis indicates, as the past three summers have been among the hottest in recorded history.

People hold signs at a rally demanding Florida legislators do something about the lack of air conditioning inside state-run prisons.View image in fullscreen

The imprisoned individuals in America face a heightened risk of illness and death from extreme heat because of their being physically confined, age, frequent health problems, and a general disregard for their well-being by legislators and society as a whole.

The study discovered that commonly, detention centers such as jails, prisons, work camps, and migrant detention centers are constructed in uninhabitable areas with minimal vegetation and little resistance from communities. Furthermore, the use of concrete in these structures makes it difficult to cool them, especially at night when the body is unable to recover until the temperature drops to 80F.

According to Carlee Purdum, the assistant director of the Hazard Reduction & Recovery Center at Texas A&M, correctional facilities are at a higher risk for extreme temperatures compared to other types of structures. This can lead to inmates suffering from serious heat-related illnesses and having a higher likelihood of chronic health issues, as well as limited access to healthcare resources.

In 2020, Webb county jail in Texas experienced 59 more hot and humid days than the rest of the state, making it the location with the greatest increase in extreme heat compared to 1982. Arizona, Nevada, and California also show significant differences in temperature between prisons and other areas.

According to Assistant Professor Robbie Parks from Columbia University, prisons and detention centers are purposefully situated in areas with higher temperatures because it aligns with the American criminal justice system’s belief in retribution and punishment for inmates.

Deadly heatwaves have struck towns and cities across the US in recent years, and are likely to rise in frequency and intensity due to global heating. Those without access to air conditioning or other effective cooling tools such as shaded outdoor spaces are vulnerable to heat exhaustion and heatstroke, as well as potentially fatal complications from existing health conditions and prescribed medications.

Swamp coolers

For many years, climate control has been a requirement in new building projects, and nearly 90% of households in the US have air conditioning. However, only a small number of states offer air conditioning in adult detention facilities. Even then, the cooling systems used are typically evaporative coolers (also called swamp coolers), which are not as efficient, especially in high humidity.

A team of researchers from Montana State, the University of Kansas, California, and Columbia discovered that approximately 1.8 million individuals in prison, accounting for 90% of adult detainees, were subjected to at least one extremely hot and humid day every year.

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In 118 institutions, primarily located in the southern regions of California, Arizona, Texas, and inland Florida, those who are detained endured an average of 75 intensely hot and humid days per year. At the Starr county jail in south Texas, the wet-bulb temperature reached at least 28C on an average of 126 days per year.

The most significant rise in time occurred in Florida, where those in prison saw an average increase of 22 dangerously hot humid days in 2020 compared to 1982.

Jeff Goodell, the writer of The Heat Will Kill You First: Life and Death on a Scorched Planet, stated that it is an undeniable fact that heat is the main killer of vulnerable individuals. He further emphasized that with the increasing impact of the climate crisis and the rise in extreme heatwaves, it is crucial to recognize that prisons without proper cooling systems will turn into unbearable and deadly environments for inmates.

“According to Goodell, enhancing the ventilation and cooling systems in American prisons is not a costly task and does not demand a revolutionary understanding of quantum physics. Instead, it calls for recognizing imprisoned individuals as equal human beings deserving of fair and courteous treatment.”

According to Purdum from Texas A&M, despite the increasing danger of the climate crisis, there is still a lack of understanding among experts on how changes in outdoor temperature and humidity affect the conditions inside prisons. This is a crucial factor in developing strategies to mitigate the impact on the mental and physical health of both incarcerated individuals and prison employees.

The threat of lethal heat is not limited to the southern regions. As the Earth continues to warm, severe weather patterns such as extreme temperatures and rainfall are becoming more sporadic and uncertain, affecting areas that are not adequately equipped to handle such conditions. This year, a heatwave in the Pacific north-west resulted in hundreds of extra deaths, highlighting the region’s lack of preparation for extreme heat.

The American Civil Liberties Union has achieved legal victories in Mississippi, Arizona, and Wisconsin by challenging the unsafe heat conditions in prisons and jails. They argue that these conditions violate the Eighth Amendment of the US Constitution, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishments. In Wisconsin, a maximum-security prison was required to install air conditioning in the cells, keeping the temperature below 84F. The prison had initially argued that air conditioning would incentivize inmates from other jails to attack others in order to be transferred.

Democratic Senator Ed Markey, who serves Massachusetts, has proposed two bills to address the dangers of extreme heat. One of these is the End Solitary Confinement Act, which aims to protect incarcerated individuals from being subjected to high temperatures in confined and inadequately ventilated spaces.

Senator Markey stated that extreme temperatures are a severe threat to people throughout the country and a national plan is necessary to address the dangers faced by incarcerated individuals. He emphasized the need to prioritize justice when considering climate issues and urged the passing of his legislation to safeguard our most at-risk communities from extreme heat.

Source: theguardian.com