The heat wave is even hotter if you are in prison. The solution of ice and fans from the Mass. offers little relief.
As Massachusetts heads into a weekend of sweltering temperatures, prison advocates fear the more than 13,000 people incarcerated in state and county jails are at particular risk of heat-related illnesses .
Massachusetts prisons and jails often do not have air conditioning. Many incarcerated people are medically vulnerable, and advocates say they are particularly at risk of illnesses, including heatstroke and seizures in buildings with little ventilation. High temperatures have caused alleged health problems in the past, leading at least one prisoner to file a complaint in court, and the problem is only expected to get worse as climate change makes hot days more frequent. Proponents are pushing for the creation of state regulations to regulate what the maximum temperature in a cell may be.
Carlos Morales, who was released from prison last June, remembers feeling so hot during the heat waves that he begged prison officers to leave open the small opening in his cell door.
He said the small fan in his cell was just blowing warm air to him. The ventilator cost him $26 in the canteen, according to the Department of Correction, and not everyone has the money to afford it.
“We’re just begging to leave the hatch open so we can have a cross breeze,” said Morales, who now works for Black and Pink, a prison abolition organization that supports LGBTQ people.
“The temperature can rise very dramatically in jails and prisons,” said Dr.. Juliana Morris, a community health care provider who has worked with incarcerated people. Morris says the rising heat and lack of relief is a “justice issue” and that “the medical complications are real.”
Jesse White, director of policy for Boston’s nonprofit Prisoner Legal Services, said state officials should mandate maximum heat levels to protect those behind bars, just as they mandate minimum levels. during the colder months. White says advocates often find themselves pleading with corrections officials to provide fans or ice for those who are particularly uncomfortable, unable to control what they’re wearing or even the temperature of their showers.
“It’s really difficult indoors because you have so little control over your surroundings,” she said. “The population is extraordinarily vulnerable.”
The Department of Corrections says it has a trained environmental health and safety officer at each facility whose responsibilities include “monitoring the climate, taking proactive mitigation actions as needed, and responding to any concerns.” raised by anyone living or working there.
A DOC spokesperson told GBH News that the department is prepared for “all New England weather conditions, including summer heat waves. … We remain committed to maintaining safe and secure environments and taking proactive steps to ensure people living and working in the facilities stay hydrated and cool.
Each facility is considering whether prisoners should be moved during heat waves to cooler locations, officials said. A state 2018 advisory said since “many correctional facilities don’t have air conditioning,” officials should provide potable water, ice, and fans when needed.
But prisoner advocates say that’s not enough. At Bridgewater State Hospital, the state’s medium-security facility for men with mental illness, there is no air conditioning in the cells, according to patient families and provider emails of medical care obtained by GBH News.
For the air conditioning units that work and exist in Bridgewater, their quality is at issue. A 2022 report by the non-profit Disability Law Center on the installation showed that a contractor found window units “mold inside” in a daily-used programming room.
Tom Kavanaugh, a member of the Bridgewater State Hospital Families Group and who has a son who is housed there, says the DOC told him it was “not physically possible to put air conditioners in the facility.” He doesn’t believe it.
“Maybe that’s not practical. It may be prohibitively expensive. But impossible, I find, is not a word I would ever accept,” he said. He and the other members of the group contact the entire Beacon Hill delegation, the DOC and the medical provider Wellpath about their concerns about the high temperatures.
Harry, a parent from Bridgewater who did not want his surname used for fear of reprisals against his son, told GBH News he deliberately turned off the air conditioning for an hour before his interview.
“I did this just to see how my son felt. And I’m like, ‘Oh my God, this is brutal,'” he said. “And he’s locked in this little cage, literally a six-by-eight cage. Imagine.”
“It’s really difficult indoors because you have so little control over your environment. … The population is extraordinarily vulnerable.
Jesse White, Director of Policy at Prisoners’ Legal Services
Air conditioning is also intermittent in county jails, where people are incarcerated with shorter sentences or awaiting trial.
In Franklin County, about 100 prisoners are incarcerated in a climate-controlled prison, which is powered by solar energy.
“It’s a really modern and efficient system that we have here, and we’re very lucky with that,” Sheriff Chris Donelan said of the 2007-built building.
In Bristol County, Ash Street Jail, built in 1888, is not air-conditioned. The nearby reformatory – built in 1990 – is. Overall, most inmates do not have air conditioning.
“Obviously we’re doing everything we can to keep it as cool as possible in the current situation,” Bristol County Sheriff Thomas Hodgson said, noting that about four in five prisoners are in prisons. units without air conditioner. He has no intention of changing that.
“We know that people on the outside are doing the right thing, don’t have the luxury of going somewhere and having someone install air conditioners for them,” he said. . “There are people who live in houses that cannot afford air conditioning, who depend on fans.”
At least one prisoner in Massachusetts has taken his heat complaints to court.
In 2018, MCI-Cedar Junction prisoner Arthur Burnham filed a complaint a civil rights complaint saying he and others at the facility endured temperatures “exceeding 120 degrees” in a unit with a glass roof and no working ventilation. Burnham alleged prison officials refused to turn on exhaust fans and said it was a violation of the Eighth Amendment, which prohibits “cruel and unusual punishment”.
He said the guards would not give him claim forms and that the civil rights complaint caused the guards to turn on the fans in every unit except his own in retaliation. Ten prisoners filed statements of support, describing their own accounts of the heat wave, under perjury.
Burnham said a prisoner passed out and was taken in a wheelchair after submitting “medical records” after telling guards he believed he was suffering from heat stroke. Another said in his statement that he had severe headaches, difficulty breathing and high blood pressure of 148/98 on July 3, 2018, when it was 97 degrees in the city.
“The nurse said my headache was due to high blood pressure and refused to talk about heat on the unit,” the man wrote.
Burnham alleged that four people passed out the following day, and on July 6, an 81-year-old man “fell unconscious to the ground due to the extreme temperature in the block”. Burnham was released in 2018, according to court records, and his case was dismissed.
Deeper than Water, a coalition of prisoner advocates, won documents about audits at several state prisons in July 2018 that came a week after a heat wave over complaints. The recommendations included more fan and ice recommendations.
Deeper Than Water organizer Christine Mitchell says little has changed in the four years since she received those reports. As climate change causes temperatures to rise in the summer, she fears this will reverberate in prisons.
“From what we heard from people inside, nothing has changed,” she said. “Heat is still a huge problem.”