Salter: Heat renews debate over air conditioning in state prisons

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Salter: Heat renews debate over air conditioning in state prisons    

STARKVILLE – Soaring temperatures and a prolonged drought/heat wave across the South has renewed what has for the last decade become an annual debate and legal battle over this question: Does the lack of air conditioning in prisons in the South constitute “cruel and unusual punishment.”

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Regarding Mississippi prisons, the question was litigated in the federal courts in 2004’s Gates v. Cook case. In that case, the federal court issued an injunction requiring the state to provide fans, ice water and daily showers when the heat index reached 90 degrees or alternately during the months of May through September.

The Gates v. Cook case invoked the test of “deliberate indifference” on the part of the state to Eighth Amendment violations, i.e., “cruel and unusual punishments.” 

Is it fair, is it accurate, to say that many law abiding, taxpaying citizens of Mississippi are “deliberately indifferent” to the fact that prison inmates are uncomfortable in prisons that are not air conditioned? In a word, yes.

But the debate continues this long, hot summer with Texas as the focal point. In that state, only 30 of 109 prisons are air conditioned. Prisoner advocates and even some prison guards argue that the lack of air conditioning is extremely dangerous and creates problems beyond mere health concerns.

State officials argue that retrofitting old buildings with air conditioning is cost prohibitive and that health concerns are exaggerated. Primarily, the argument centers on whether there is a difference in actual health dangers or simple discomfort.

The debate over prisons conditions has roiled between the American Civil Liberties Union, the federal courts, and state corrections officials. In a case involving the infamous Angola prison in Louisiana, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals cited the super-heated conditions as being unconstitutional but stopped short of ordering the state or provide air conditioning for the prisoners. 

Couple that with data from the American Housing Survey which shows that by 2011, almost 98 percent of homes in the South had either central air conditioning or window units. The Census Bureau established in 2005 that 80 percent of households that identified as “poor households” had air conditioning.

Those numbers, combined with arguments about climate change, comprise some of the basic tenets of the prisoner advocate argument in favor of taxpayer-funded air conditioning for prison inmates.

I’ve conducted interviews on Death Row at the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman and I did so back when the current state execution chamber – Unit 17 – was state’s maximum security unit and housed the gas chamber. 

Unit 17 – once called “Little Alcatraz” – was stifling hot. It was a venue filled with the howling of mentally ill prisoners and the brutalities of those sane but past the point of any moral boundaries. There was a smell there that I can only describe as a mixture of sweat, testosterone and a neglected public restroom.

It was hard enough staying in that environment for a few hours while interviewing a murderer. I cannot imagine living in those conditions for months or years. 

That infamous unit is no longer used to house prisoners. It’s used only for executions.

But for people of my generation and older across the South, the argument that “cruel and unusual punishment” is inflicted by not providing air conditioning for the prison cells of criminals is news indeed. 

During my childhood in the 1960s in Mississippi, the vast majority of schools, churches, stores, public and government buildings were not air conditioned. It was seen by society as a luxury, not a necessity.

For those of us who are old enough to remember when none of us enjoyed the comfort of air conditioning, the question becomes one of observing humane treatment of prisoners while not forgetting that prison – by design and practice – is not supposed to be a comfortable and inviting environment.

(Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. Contact him