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Are Jails Without Air-Conditioning ‘Cruel and Unusual Punishment?

August 16, 2016
Plain English Version
Prison in Texas in shimmering heat.

Prison in Texas in shimmering heat.

Summers are hot. Air-conditioning cools homes and businesses. It may or may not cool your local or state jail.

Lawsuits are underway to change that. Many jails in Southern states are without cooling units. A lawyer for inmates said that extreme heat exposes prisoners to a real risk of harm.

Courts have said that jails must not be too hot or too cold. But air-conditioning is costly. Voters who pay for jails do not want to pay for the comfort of inmates. The courts will have to find a remedy.

Jail officials have a different view. They say cold showers; fans and liquids such as water are all jails need. They also assert it is not as hot as prisoners say it is. In some places officials see air-conditioning as “coddling the prisoners.”

A sheriff said, “For the first twenty years of my life, I lived in a house with no air-conditioning. I have a hard time sympathizing with anybody over air-conditioning.”

There are rules about temperatures in jails. One rule in Texas says temperatures in county jails must between 65 and 85 degrees. The same rule does not apply to Texas state prisons.

Advocates say air-conditioning is no longer a luxury. The problem is money. One Texas official said air-conditioning would cost hundreds of millions of dollars.

The Supreme Court said in 1981 “the Constitution does mandate comfortable prisons.” But over the years many courts have ordered air-conditioning.

There is a strong culture in some places. A Southern sheriff said, “We do not want to make it real comfortable for them because we do not want them to come back. We try to get it and keep it at a level that it is comfortable enough that they can survive.”

One jailer suggested a “Cajun cooler.” It is an ice chest, a duct and a fan that blows out cool air.

A new jail recently opened in Louisiana. It did not have air-conditioning. But it turned out that some of the controls in the jail need cooling. Now the prisoners will be getting air conditioning.

Source: The New York Times August 15, 2016

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