In Florida they fry the inmates
Christian Science Monitor
Florida's summers are notoriously long and hot and humid, but apparently nowhere in the state are they longer or hotter or more humid than in a 6-by-9-foot cell on death row.
A federal judge in Jacksonville is being asked to consider whether the state's decision not to provide air conditioning - or even fans - in its prisons amounts to cruel and unusual punishment in violation of US constitutional safeguards.
It is an issue that arises most frequently in Southern states, where high summer temperatures can make prison life nearly unbearable.
There are no clearly established standards as to how much heat and humidity prisoners must endure before officials take special remedial action. Last summer, 2 inmates at the New Jersey State Prison in Trenton died of heat-related causes during a heat wave that boosted cell temperatures into the 100s (38C).
The American Correctional Association suggests summertime temperatures inside prisons should range from 66 to 80 degrees F (19-27C). But the vast majority of US prisons are not air conditioned and prison officials set their own standards.
The Florida lawsuit, filed on behalf of some 300 death-row inmates at the Union Correctional Institution southwest of Jacksonville, says the prison's own temperature logs demonstrate conditions that pose a danger to the health of the prisoners.
"During July and August, the recorded temperatures in the cell area during the day are almost always in excess of 90 degrees F (32C), frequently exceed 100 degrees (38 C), and have been as high as 110 degrees (43C)," the suit says.
2 death-row inmates, Jim Chandler and William Kelley, complain in the suit that excessive heat has left them feeling sick and dizzy. They say prison rules bar them from affixing pieces of cloth and cardboard to their cell walls to deflect air from wall-based blowers toward their bunks. And they say that recent installation of metal security screening over their cell bars is further reducing the minimal air flow.
"We are not necessarily saying this building has to be air conditioned. We are just saying that air temperatures are too high and something needs to be done to correct that," says Randall Berg, a Miami lawyer who filed the suit on the inmates' behalf. "The state is housing inmates under
conditions that are barbaric and causing them severe health problems."
Prison officials say that long hot summers are a fact of life in Florida. C.J. Drake, a spokesman for the Florida Department of Corrections, says that the 2 complaining inmates are longtime death- row residents, with Mr. Kelley arriving in 1984 and Mr. Chandler arriving in 1981.
"They haven't acclimated themselves to the heat after 16 and 19 years on death row?" Mr. Drake asks. "They are only now complaining about the heat?"
Drake says the lawsuit is based on inaccurate or incomplete temperature data and that prison officials are prepared to demonstrate in court that conditions at the prison are acceptable.
He says officials took temperature readings 2 weeks ago and found that when outside temperatures were 98 degrees, temperatures on death row were 86.9 degrees. Later that same day, officials recorded outside temperatures of 100.5 degrees and inside temperatures of 88.8 degrees. Prison officials stress that inmates have access in their cells to water and that if they become ill from excessive heat they will be taken to the prison infirmary, which is air conditioned.
They add that there is no historical evidence of inmates suffering substantial medical problems related to excessive heat. "All they have is inmates complaining that it is too hot," Drake says.
Fred Markham knows a thing or two about prisons, having spent 27 years behind prison bars in Texas. Mr. Markham, who now works for Prison Legal News in Seattle, says Texas prisons are not air conditioned, but most provide fans. Even so, summers are difficult.
"You sit in the cell and you sweat, hour after hour," Markham says. "I've seen fistfights over who would get to sleep on the floor because the concrete was cooler."
"If you are locked in that cell for 23 hours a day it gets pretty ... intolerable because you are only showering every 2nd or 3rd day. So there are a lot of baths taken out of the toilet. I've done it thousands of times."
Markham says prison officials who keep their inmates cooler are likely to experience fewer problem inmates than those who let them broil. He says fans would be a welcome addition in most prisons, but "try to get a state legislature to kick down $1 million to buy fans for prisoners ... not in
this universe." But these specialists stress that prisons must provide a humane and safe atmosphere. If prison officials deliberately seek to use excessive heat as a form of additional punishment, they say, that could rise to the level of cruel and unusual punishment.
"Many prison officials and members of the public have lost sight of what an astonishing punishment the loss of liberty is," says Jamie Felner, a prisoner-rights specialist at Human Rights Watch in New York.
Many prisoner-rights experts stress that, at some point, most prisoners will be released and rejoin society. "If we don't do anything for them while they are in prison, they are just going to come out angry individuals," says Kara Gotsch of the American Civil Liberties Union's National Prison Project. "That is not the kind of person you want to live next to."
Jackson Clarion-Ledger, Sept 03, 2000
Corrections Commissioner Robert Johnson on Friday said inmates tinkering with wall outlets to fashion tools for the recent escape from Unit 32 forced action on a long-term problem.
Representatives of the American Civil Liberties Union of Mississippi and the recently formed International Citizens for Humane Incarceration at Parchman said they are concerned that the loss of fans during 100-degree weather may pose a health risk to inmates.
Both groups have written letters to Johnson since corrections staff began pulling the outlets several weeks ago. Ken McGill of Southaven, a spokesman for ICHIP, said the high temperatures pose a risk of heat stroke or heat exhaustion.
"The loss of electricity means hundreds of prisoners are unable to use fans to cool their cells. Unit 32 does not have air conditioning. This summer has been one of the hottest summers in Mississippi history," McGill said.
Unit 32 houses 1,000 maximum-security inmates, including those on death row, at the State Penitentiary.
"I see it as a serious problem. The fans are not a luxury in this kind of weather. I think they are necessary for the inmates to get through these summers," said ACLU Executive Director David Ingebretsen of Jackson.
The inmates bought the fans from the Parchman canteen.
Said Johnson: "There are safety issues both ways, to be honest with you. The heat spell is temporary. The risk posed by these inmates utilizing these voltage sources to do all kinds of nefarious things presents a greater hazard to our staff.
"If I were to weigh the risk associated with both, I would have to defer in favor of protecting the staff," Johnson said. "I'm not being inhumane in trying to balance those two."
There have been incidents of scalding water thrown on guards after inmates fashioned makeshift hot plates. And inmates have loosened the wall outlets to hide contraband, Johnson said.
Inmates used heat to melt scrounged plastic and fashion it into a tool handle used by Roy Harper and John Woolard in their May 28 escape.
In the cells and at the fences, officers also found pieces of hacksaw blades, a hand-drawn map of the prison, a photocopied highway map, heavy-gauge wire from food trays fashioned into pry tools, gloves and a piece of a lighting fixture notched to part the razor wire.
Tampering with the electrical outlets has occurred for a long time. "It was just an accumulation of events that we discovered over time," Johnson said.
"We didn't pay a lot of attention to it until the escape," Johnson said.
"We can't let it continue and cross our fingers and hope nothing happens," Johnson said. "Hopefully we can figure something out.
"You can actually electrocute someone if you want to," Johnson said.
Johnson said pulling the wall sockets is a temporary measure. Authorities are looking for a way to make them tamper-resistant and decrease the voltage.
Ingebretsen said corrections officials could have accomplished their goal by pulling the plug on rule-breakers.
"I think there could have been a more limited response than to punish the
entire population in Unit 32 for the offenses of a few," Ingebretsen said.
Ingebretsen said he is especially concerned about inmates who have HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. Although most inmates who have tested positive for HIV are housed in a separate unit, those cited for rules
violations go to Unit 32.
"Heat increases the stress on the HIV-positive inmates and also degrades the potency of the medicine they take," Ingebretsen said.
Prisoner rights attorney Ron Welch said he is sending a letter to Johnson to request air conditioning for the HIV inmates at Unit 28.
Welch said he was unaware of the loss of fans at Unit 32.
He said fans are built into the ventilation system. "It's not like there's no ventilation at all," Welch said.
Prison physicians could order transfer of inmates who might suffer health problems related to the heat, he said.
The electrical outlets pose a fire hazard, Welch said. Inmates with access to wall outlets at the Hinds County Detention Center and the Sunflower County Jail have set fires.
Welch, who is responsible for monitoring conditions of confinement under the long-running Gates vs. Collier federal lawsuit, said placing the outlets inside the cells was a design flaw.
"I'm going to have to talk to the commissioner about it. I'm going to have to go up and take a look," Welch said. "I can't really come to any conclusion sitting here in Jackson in my air-conditioned office."
McGill said his organization has asked to tour the Delta prison with a news reporter to address concerns about the heat and exposure to roaches, vermin and human waste and other conditions of confinement.
McGill said Johnson told his organization that the sanitation concerns were unfounded. The commissioner hasn't replied to the request for a tour.
INTERNATIONAL GROUP PROTESTS INHUMANE CONDITIONS AT MISSISSIPPI STATE PRISON
PARCHMAN, MS. - An international group of individuals from six different countries, including Germany and the U.K., have formed an organization to protest the inhumane conditions at the state penitentiary in Parchman, Mississippi. The group calls itself ICHIP, or, International Citizens for Humane Incarceration at Parchman.
Though some members of ICHIP have friends or loved ones within Parchman, others joined after hearing of shocking human rights abuses within the prison.
The group recently expressed its concerns to Mississippi Department of Correction Commissioner Robert Johnson in a letter that described such deplorable conditions as insect and rodent infested cells, lack of proper medical and dental care, persistent flooding of feces and urine in cells and hallways, and lack of exercise - many inmates in Parchman have had no outside recreation in nearly a year. ICHIP members are now waiting to hear from Johnson whether they may tour the prison with members of the local press and Amnesty International.
"The most recent abuse," says ICHIP member Betsy Wolfenden, an attorney from North Carolina, "is that the prison is systematically removing all electrical outlets from the cells on Unit 32 of the prison which houses approximately 1,000 inmates."
Previously the prisoners were allowed to purchase fans from the prison commissary. Without outlets to plug in the fans, the prisoners are left to swelter in 6 x 9 cells for 24 hours a day without any relief from the 100 degree temperatures. "We are hearing frightening reports on a daily basis from prisoners who are unable to tolerate the extreme heat."
(see excepts from prisoners' letters below).
To protest the unbearable temperatures within the cells, a number of prisoners on Unit 32-C at Parchman resorted to a hunger strike until Warden W.L. Holman responded to their concerns. When Holman refused to meet with the prisoners, some of the inmates flooded their cells by allowing their toilets to overflow. One of the non-violent protestors was removed from his cell, pepper sprayed and beaten, and then thrown into "the hole" for eight days, according to first-hand reports coming out of the prison.
The American Correctional Association suggests summertime temperatures inside prisons should range from 66 to 80 degrees F.
This summer, inmates at Florida's Union Correctional Institution that houses the state's death row commenced a class action suit protesting the heat that frequently exceeds 100 degrees inside the cells. ICHIP is also considering a legal remedy for the inmates in Parchman.
"The citizens of Mississippi should be ashamed that their tax dollars are supporting a facility where a stray dog wouldn't be housed overnight, let alone human beings serving lengthy prison sentences. Being removed from society is the punishment.
Enduring degradation and human rights abuses on a daily basis that violate the Eighth Amendment is not supposed to be the punishment," states Wolfenden.
The following excerpts are from letters written by prisoners housed at Parchman State Prison in Parchman, Mississippi:
".it has been so hot, I can only lay on the floor. I have asthma and take medication. It's hard to get to the clinic to see a doctor. I know people who have diabetes and X has lung problems.
Man, it's so hot, I can't see straight..Parchman is insane."
"I am currently being housed in a Maximum Security Unit, which is Unit 32-C Building, Parchman MS. The unit itself sits out in the open, which means, the entire unit gets baked by the sun
all day, making the building we live in like "hot boxes." Temperatures here reach 100 degrees a lot of days, so you can just imagine how hot it gets inside.
The only thing prisoners have to escape the brutal heat is a fan which we can buy from canteen. Other then that, there is virtually no ventilation. Even with a small fan it's hard to breathe because of the intense heat. This is cruel and unusual punishment on all who are subjected to these elements.
Recently they came through our building and stripped our power from each cell, leaving us with no way to run our fans. This was all we had left to try getting away from the heat.
They have taken cruel and unusual punishment to it's fullest extent. It's unbearable to live this way and I'm truly afraid prisoners are going to die from the heat and lack of ventilation. Contrary to what people on the outside think, we prisoners here have nothing, no TV's, no radios, no air conditioning and all the other things that people think we have. Do not be deceived by such thoughts, I assure you this is not so, the only things we prisoners here in 32 have are what they give us which isn't much at all."
".remember me telling you that we were being removed from our cells, taken to the holding tank and they installed screens on the windows? Well, X and others were having their power removed as well. After today (Aug.3), that entire zone will be power free. Before that, X and others planned to protest. Last Friday they came to X and told him to pack up so they could take him to the holding tank. He told them he wasn't going and others were supposed to do the same thing. Lt. Maxwell came and ordered him out of his cell and he refused so Maxwell ordered several guards to mace X. They all refused to do it. After no one would do it, Lt. Maxwell called up front and got permission to do it personally. So he maced X. After that, X allowed them to restrain him. His property was taken and he was taken to the clinic. While there, the lights were removed and the power was taken. They put him back in the same cell but this time he had no property or clothes.
X and others decided over the weekend to start protesting. Some went on hunger strike; others were flooding the tier with their toilets. On the 31st, X set off a sprinkler in the hall. Him and others were standing and protesting. When Maxwell came, the others fell weak and X was the only one who stood strong. He allowed Maxwell to restrain him with leg irons and waist chains. He was moved to a cell with a steel door on it. As he was being brought over here where the steel doors are, Maxwell pulled him into the laundry room area, punched him a few times, and when he went down, he kicked him a few times. When he got on this zone, he yelled and let us know that Maxwell had jumped on him."