How hot is too hot on death row?

In a lawsuit, Florida inmates say lack of fans or air conditioners is cruel and unusual punishment.

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 six-by-nine-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, two 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.

The American Correctional Association suggests summertime temperatures inside prisons should range from 66 to 80 degrees F. 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, frequently exceed 100 degrees, and have been as high as 110 degrees," the suit says.

Two 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 two 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 two 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 second or third 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."

Inmate-rights experts say prison officials are afforded wide discretion in running their facilities, such as setting budget priorities that may exclude air conditioning and even the purchase of fans.

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."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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