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'We Wouldn't Treat Our Animals This Way': Lack Of AC In Record Heat Puts Florida Prisons To The Test

A growing number of women are incarcerated in the U.S. and many of them give birth in prison or jail.
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

This last May was the hottest ever recorded in the Sunshine State. That was followed by higher-than-average temperatures in June and July. The scorching hot temperatures means thousands of inmates across the state are spending what could potentially be a record-breaking summer without access to air conditioning.

The Florida Department of Corrections operates 50 “major facilities” across the state. Only 18 of them have air conditioning in “most of their housing,” according to the department.

It’s not a new issue, but families and prisoner advocates are increasingly sounding the alarm, calling it inhumane to incarcerate someone through a Florida summer without regular access to cool air.

“In the winter he tolerates it,” says Suzanne Butner, whose husband is in Columbia Correctional Institution in Lake City. “But I see such a change in him and his personality and his depression level and everything as soon as it starts getting hot.”

"I can guarantee you go to any Humane Society in the state of Florida, and they’ve got big fans back there where those dogs are," says Jan Thompson, whose husband is in Madison Correctional Institution in North Florida. 

Laurette Philipsen was an inmate for eight years at Lowell Correctional Institution, one of the largest female-only prisons in the nation. She got out last year, and describes the heat as intolerable.

“It would get so unbearably hot that at night when you try to sleep and you can’t, you would get into the shower on the coldest setting of water that you could get and you would stand in the shower until you were soaked, and then you’d go back to bed in your wet clothes,” says Philipsen.

Technically, this was not allowed, but Philipsen says guards would cut inmates some slack because they understood the heat was unbearable. “We wouldn’t treat our animals this way,” says Philipsen.

The notion that animals would be treated better than incarcerated people is true, to a point. County governments across the state -- including places like  Miami-Dade, Volusia and Pinellas counties -- require dog kennels to provide air conditioning and air ventilation. State statutes regulating the state correctional system don’t have similar language.

One of the reasons the state doesn’t have broader access to air conditioning is because many of its prisons were built decades ago, before air conditioning was widely available. The oldest prison still in use in the state is Union Correctional Institute, which was constructed in 1913.

“Renovations to include air conditioning would require significant funding as they would be prohibitively expensive in older buildings not designed for modern cooling systems,” the Department of Corrections said in a statement. However, inmates have access to some buildings with air conditioning, including places where chapel services and educational programs take place, it says.

Republican State Senator Jeff Brandes, who has made a name for himself pushing for prison reform in the state, points out the heat has impacts beyond inmates, too.

“It’s a challenge for guards who gotta stand in that, or be in that space as well,” says Brandes, who has been visiting state prisons for several years now, including several in recent weeks. “It’s like walking into a sauna."

The senator says it's one of many fixes needed to the state prison system. Topping his list is a chronic shortage of correctional officers and regular maintenance that has been put off for years in some facilities due to a lack of funding.

But the lack of air conditioning makes it harder to maintain order in the prison system, he says, exacerbating other issues.

“[Inmates are] having more episodes during the summer than they are during the winter, and so that’s just one sign or signal of how this kind of compounds and kind of plays out over time,” says Brandes.

He says it’s generally understood that acting out can have an unintended benefit: it can often lead to someone to be put into a mental health ward or a health infirmary, areas which the Department of Corrections says generally do have air conditioning.

Many of the newer facilities in the state do have air conditioning, and many are run by private prison companies. Core Civic, a major private prison company, has air conditioning in all its buildings, including both facilities it runs in the state. “Air conditioning keeps our staff and those entrusted to our care cool in more than one way,” Amanda Gilchrist, the public affairs director for the company told WLRN in an email. 

Boca Raton-based private prison company the GEO Group told WLRN that all five of the prisons it operates in Florida “have air conditioning in all areas, including the housing units.” 

Former inmate John Eddings said it didn’t used to be so bad. Eddings spent 40 years in Florida prisons for various crimes before being released in 2009. Until the mid-1990s, he says he was able to keep a personal fan in his cell, until those privileges were rescinded in the mid-90s. (The Department of Corrections says it was unable to find someone who was around back then to detail why the policy was changed.)

In lieu of having a personal fan, Eddings and other inmates developed a system to keep cool that involved attaching a plastic trash bag to tiny holes in the wall to form a kind of funnel. “It would come in and this funnel would point the air directly towards wherever it was aimed. In this case it was the bed area,” says Eddings. “Almost every day of the year this is what I would use." 

Today, only inmates on Death Row are allowed to keep fans in their cells -- because the electric infrastructure is different on Death Row and can support wall units purchased at the expense of the inmate.

The Department of Corrections is currently assessing the possibility of allowing all inmates to purchase personal fans through the commissary, at the inmate’s own expense. The discussion has been spurred by inmate advocacy groups like Florida Cares.

In the meantime, scientists predict that Florida is only going to get hotter and hotter as the climate changes.  Advocates say that makes the issue more pressing with each passing year.

“I know some people don’t believe in the climate change, but I have noticed a difference out here in the free world. It does seem like it’s hotter than it used to be,” says Edding. “If I can notice it here, then obviously it has to be the same way on the inside.”

Copyright 2020 WLRN 91.3 FM. To see more, visit WLRN 91.3 FM.

Daniel Rivero is a reporter and producer for WLRN, covering Latino and criminal justice issues. Before joining the team, he was an investigative reporter and producer on the television series "The Naked Truth," and a digital reporter for Fusion.