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Overheating the forgotten

Extreme heat and human rights violations in Florida’s prisons

Illustration by Walker Gawande @walker_gawande

I am currently incarcerated in Florida’s Everglades Correctional Institution. As a prison journalist, reporter and personal essay writer, I have written about important topics of discriminatory practices against inmates, and the flawed Felony Murder Rule, for nearly three years. However, telling these truths about the overheating conditions that we – the incarcerated humans – must live in, is by far my most troubling story.

The majority of Florida’s prisons do not have air conditioning. Our small 6×9 cells each have one small frosted window with mesh coverings that restricts air flow. When the doors are locked, our cells resemble a cage; when the heat settles in, it feels like an oven. A persisting problem, but maybe unsurprising – because prisons were designed to punish.

The 2023 Summer’s heatwave brought this inhumane condition to the forefront.

Protecting the state over the people

Ricky Dixon, who has worked for the Florida Department of Corrections for over 25 years, was recently appointed as Secretary of the Department of Corrections. And because of the excessive heat conditions that are permeating the prison system, he addressed a group of state lawmakers explaining that 75% of all housing units in Florida’s Corrections system currently do not have air conditioning. Worse still, he warned that there doesn’t seem to be any immediate or major solutions.

Dixon confessed that it had been a major challenge last summer for both the inmates and the corrections’ staff. “It’s been suggested that we air condition our current dorms,” he said in addressing the Senate Appropriations Committee on Criminal and Civil Justice. “I’m not opposed to that, but it’s extremely expensive.”

What’s not being acknowledged is that there is no escaping when the heatwave comes in. No matter the temporary blowing of a breeze, a gulp of cold water, or an extra five minute shower. Nothing stops the mental and physical effects of the excessive heat once it settles in the cell with you.

The Department has hired the Global Auditing firm of KPMG to review the air conditioning situation in Florida prisons. “When you are in the facility, and you visit a dorm that does not have air conditioning, and you look at the guards who are charged with maintaining security in those spaces, it is absolutely oppressive,” said Northeast Republican Senator Jennifer Bradley, who chairs the committee.

“We are going to have to take steps,” she added. “And that’s why it’s called mitigation. It may not be AC, but there are things that we can do in our system to mitigate the heat, or Florida will find itself on the receiving end of a lawsuit, and it will be a lot more expensive.”

The Senator’s statements show just how far removed inmates are from being seen and treated as human beings. Her statements make it very clear that she’s more interested in protecting lawmakers from a lawsuit than addressing the real issue. 

July’s heatwave

I spoke to some other incarcerated folks to see what they think about the engulfing heat. While I’m interviewing Anthony, sweat drips from my skin. I try my best to stay hydrated, but it seems the more water that I drink, the more sweat pours out while sitting in our small overheated cells. “Man… the heat coats the walls, turning our cells into ovens. It feels like we’re in a crematorium sometimes!” Anthony exclaims. 

The mental anguish pushes me on.

It’s 9:30am on a Saturday morning, and the brutal heat has already taken its effect. I’m standing next to an elderly gentleman who wants to remain anonymous. Sweat trails off his forehead as he talks about Senator Bradley’s statements: “If it’s oppressive to just watch the prison guards working in non-air conditioned dorms, then being inside of a cell, whose temperature is far higher than being in any open space, should be deemed inhumane. There is no mitigation once those cell doors are locked for the night.”

The reality is that men like him are not thought about when lawmakers resolve to do nothing about the excessive heat conditions in prison.

In the State of Florida, the hottest temperatures ever recorded were documented the first week of July, 2023. For three days in a row, Miami had a heat index of 112, 113, 114 degrees Fahrenheit (44, 45, 45.5C) respectively.

According to ready.gov: “Extreme heat is a period of high heat and humidity with temperatures above 90 degrees for at least two or three days [and]… is responsible for the highest number of annual deaths among all weather-related hazards.”

If this is the case for members of the free society, who can go to cooling-stations or turn on their AC units, should excessively hot prison cells not be deemed inhumane?

As incarcerated people, we cannot not go to cooling-stations, we cannot purchase battery operated fans, and the Department rules require us to wear our cotton-polyester uniforms all year long. There is no established mitigation from the heat.

A disaster waiting to happen

“Absence of air conditioning in prisons and jails is a disaster waiting to happen,” said David Fathi, Director of the ACLU National Prison Project, in an interview with the States Newsroom in August. “This is not an issue of comfort and luxury, it is an issue of life and death. The decision not to air condition those facilities is essentially a decision to let people die.”

When our dormitory officer calls 9am movement, which signifies that we can leave our dorm to go to our call-outs, I get dressed in my uniform and walk about a football-field-and-a-half away to the education building for a Positive Peer Leadership meeting, which is a gang prevention program that mentors young adults in the system. I am its Lead Mentor and Vice President of Programs.

By the time that I arrive at the meeting, I am drenched in sweat. The cotton-polyester uniform heats up in the 112 degree weather like a hot car on a hot afternoon.

💌

Not all of us behind the razor-wired fence are in for the same offences, yet all of us suffer from the same brutal heat conditions. “We have people going in for unpaid parking tickets and drug possession charges, and they end up getting a death sentence because of the heat,” said Dominick, founder of Texas Prison Community Advocates.

Everyone of us in Florida prisons builds makeshift hand fans, strip down to our shorts, or constantly place a cold wet hand towel over our heads and around our necks to try to abate the heat, and cool our body temperatures down. The heat does not select who not to hold in its grip, and its consequences can be deadly.

The impacts on an ageing prison population

Not all of us are young. I am a part of a large portion of the ageing population that is parole eligible under Florida’s abolished parole system. Each time that I am denied parole and set off for another seven years, the more vulnerable I become to a heat-related death. The ageing population have expensive medical conditions and mental health concerns, which makes us more susceptible to heat-related illnesses and death.

One afternoon in July, Cleve, an elderly inmate that is also parole eligible, fell out cold on the hot asphalt while waiting in a very long lunch line. With no where to escape the brutal heat, his body overheated and shut down. Six more inmates passed out from heat exhaustion in the next six consecutive days.

These incidents show what awaits us. Each year temperatures are getting hotter and hotter, each year we’re getting older and older. The only logical result, if no immediate resolutions are put in place, is that the ageing prison population will be found dead in our cells from heat-related causes.

Senator Bradley further stated that it’s important to acquire accurate data about how hot it actually is in a Florida cell. “We don’t have that data, and that to me is a little concerning,” she said. “Good data is good policy.”

Disregarding the solutions

For the lawmakers not to declare the excessive heat conditions in Florida prisons a human rights issue, put the vulnerable lives in jeopardy. The data about the heat in prison cells is accessible to all lawmakers. In fact, in the summer of 2022, the Department of Corrections began a pilot project at Lowell Corrections Institution – the largest women’s prison in Florida – by testing three portable evaporative coolers as a low-cost alternative to try to beat the heat. That effort was led by Gainesville Democratic House member Yvonne Hayes Gibson and Inmate Advocate Connie Edson.

After running the pilot project, Edson told lawmakers: “there is a solution out there. With your funding, we can find the solution.”

But Dixon dismissed the coolers as any type of long-term alternative. “These portable units are a Band-Aid approach,” he said. Because of the noise and moisture that the portable units create, he continued: “Even the inmate population doesn’t like them.”

Currently, the data has not been posted on the results of this pilot project. But there are two things that this pilot project does highlight: One, that the data is available about how hot prison cells are in Florida, and two, the measures that were taken to cool down the female prison. For the lawmakers to not decide to provide relief for the other prisons in Florida is cruel.

According to research done by Julie Skarha, an environmental epidemiologist at Brown University School of Public Health, 271 prisoners died of heat-related causes in un-air-conditioned Texas prison between 2001 and 2019. Many more suffer heat exhaustion each year, reporting dizziness, nausea, heat rashes, and muscle cramps. With climate changes, each summer it’s going to be worse than the last.

Where are our human rights?

The reality of the heat conditions in Florida prisons “is like an intravenous drip to the mind,” says 56 year old Abdus Salaam as we talk at dinner. “Temperatures inside the cells can soar to 15 degrees higher than temperatures outside because the buildings were built without insulation. That means temperatures over a hundred degrees with high humidity, put temperatures above 115 degrees inside the cells. The bricks heat up like charcoal, turning our small spaces into hot boxes,” he laments.

During counts, our cell doors are locked close, and when the temperature increases, we’re unable to access fans or cold water. This lack of access can last for 30-60 minutes during each of the four daytime counts. And if there is a recount, which happens often, these 30-60 minutes can extend to 90 minutes or more.

At night, the conditions are even more brutal. There is no access to cold water, showers or fans once the cell doors are locked for the night. Resident Henry C. explains, “The air comes in the window and you never feel it.” We have no vents on the windows to direct air flow towards our bunks. We are made to endure the brutal heat for six hours every night all summer long.

Year after year, we ingest the fact that we’re not seen or to be treated like humans. We silently carry this trauma every day, which is reinforced by the presence of an ambulance coming to help one of our fallen.

This occurrence perpetually reminds us that being sentenced to prison is just like being sent to a dark place awaiting our appointed death. Regardless of what we’re charged with, on any given day it can be anyone of us that’s being carried away.

Whether you believe inmates should have air conditioning to offset the growing crisis or not, nobody can argue that living in South Florida without air conditioning during the hot summer months is less than ideal.

It is time for you – the private citizen – to use social media to speak about this ever growing crisis of Overheating The Forgotten, instead of hearing the repeated misguided views told by those in positions of power and wealth. This one-sided narrative contributes to the death of prisoners all over America, wrought by the endless pursuit of taxpayers’ dollars and political control.

What can you do?

  • Contact:
    • Support Tony financially and/or contact him: Anthony Cobb, dc#194479, through jpay.com
    • Watch
      • 13th, a documentary which explains the prison industrial complex.
  • Read: 
  • Articles on the topic of abolition:
Illustration by Walker Gawande @walker_gawande: “I wanted to create a symbol which could speak to the horrifying conditions of Florida’s overheated prisons and for the prisoners’ collective struggle. The image of hands gripping melting prison bars immediately stuck in my mind.”
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