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Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Extreme Heat In Prisons Dangerous For Some Inmates

Overheated prison cells pose significant health risks to prisoners, especially ones whose health is already poor, and the issue is flaring up with summer approaching. (miss_millions/Flickr)

Overheated prison cells pose significant health risks to prisoners, especially ones whose health is already poor, and the issue is flaring up with summer approaching. (miss_millions/Flickr)

Across the country, heat-related deaths in prisons are highlighting a pervasive problem: elderly inmates, and those using certain kinds of medications, are at high risk of overheating in uncooled prisons.

David Fathi is director of the American Civil Liberties Union National Prison Project, and he’s successfully challenged prison conditions in Wisconsin, Arizona and Mississippi.

Fathi tells Here & Now’s Robin Young that extreme heat in some of the prisons in these states violated the Eight Amendment of the Constitution and exposed inmates to cruel and unusual punishment.

Interview Highlights: David Fathi

On how widespread the problem of prison overheating is

“It’s hard to get exact statistics, because we have 51 separate prison systems and literally hundreds of jails in this country. But one thing I can tell you is it’s becoming a bigger problem as the prison population ages and has more people with chronic medical conditions, more people on medications that make them heat sensitive, and as the weather is changing and we have hotter summers, at least in certain parts of the country.”

On his own experience in overheated cells

“I was in the cells in the Wisconsin super-max … I’ve also been, last July and August, in the Arizona state prison system, where we currently have a lawsuit ongoing that involves this issue. And it was absolutely unbearable, even for short periods of time, and I’m a person in reasonably good health. I don’t have any particular risk factors for heat injury, but it was inconceivable to me that I could survive these conditions for more than a very short period of time. But prisoners in Arizona, of course, are exposed to these conditions for days and weeks at a time during the hot summer months.”

On why he believes this is a constitutional issue

“Several courts have said that extreme heat violates the Constitution. The Eighth Amendment prohibits cruel and unusual punishment, and what the Supreme Court has said is that prisons can’t expose prisoners to conditions that pose a substantial risk of serious harm. Prisons don’t have to be comfortable, but they have to be safe, and they can’t expose prisoners to an unreasonable risk of injury or death. And so several courts have already ruled that extreme heat does pose such a great risk, at least to some prisoners, that it violates the Eighth Amendment.”

Guest

Transcript

ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:

It's HERE AND NOW. The death of a homeless 56-year-old former Marine in a 100-degree jail cell in New York this past February focused attention on a problem that's bigger than you might imagine: inmates, particularly older and mentally ill inmates, at high risk of overheating illness and heat-related deaths. In Texas alone at least 14 inmates have died from extreme heat since 2007, and courts have ruled on the issue of overheating in Arizona, Wisconsin, Illinois, Mississippi, with many of the lawsuits brought by the ACLU.

David Fathi is director of the American Civil Liberties Union National Prison Project, and he joins us from the NPR studios in Washington. So David, how big is this problem nationwide in your eyes?

DAVID FATHI: It's hard to get exact statistics, because we have 51 separate prison systems and literally hundreds of jails in this country. But one thing I can tell you is it's becoming a bigger issue as the prison population ages and has more people with chronic medical conditions, more people on medications that make them heat sensitive, and as the weather is changing and we have hotter summers, at least in certain parts of the country.

YOUNG: Well, you are not the only one saying that climate change is a factor here, and we should say the death in New York was in February, but the heating system had malfunctioned, and so it was still, although it was cold outside, it was 100 degrees in his cell. But tell us about some of the challenges that you've brought, Wisconsin for instance. You were challenging conditions in super-max prisons?

FATHI: Correct. This was Wisconsin's super-max prison, where prisoners were locked in small, windowless cells for literally all but four hours a week. And during the summer months the temperatures reached potentially lethal levels in the cells, and of course the prisoners had no way of escaping to a cooler environment and no way of cooling themselves.

And so we brought a lawsuit involving that issue and others. The lawsuit was settled with the prison officials' agreement to cool the cells. They eventually concluded that the only way they could cool the cells was air conditioning, which they decided not to do for political reasons. The court ordered them to air condition the cells, and the U.S. Court of Appeals affirmed that order. So air conditioning was provided.

YOUNG: Well, you mentioned political reasons. Did people feel how can we pay for air conditioning for prisoners? Did it - was it interpreted as a luxury?

FATHI: I think that's part of the problem. It wasn't a huge amount of money. I think it was maybe three-quarters of a million dollars. But it was the fear of the way this would look to the public. The prison officials actually suggested that if we air condition the super-max, prisoners at other prisons will assault staff so that they can be transferred to the super-max, where they would be locked in their cells for all but three or four hours a week.

Both the district court and the court of appeals said they found that scenario to be dubious in the extreme.

YOUNG: Yeah, not likely that prisoners would be fighting to get into someplace where they'd only be out for four hours a week, even if it had air conditioning.

FATHI: Exactly.

YOUNG: You made a challenge in Mississippi at their super-max. The state was ordered to provide fans and ice and showers when the heat index went above 90. What happened in Arizona?

FATHI: At Arizona, this was a case at the Maricopa County Jail, which is run by Sheriff Joe Arpaio. This is the jail that services the county that includes Phoenix and its surrounding suburbs, and it's one of the largest jails in the United States. And what was happening here was that the jail made no effort to make sure that prisoners who were on psychotropic medications that made them more sensitive to heat injury and death were housed in a climate-controlled environment.

And so the court ordered the jail to house prisoners taking these medications in an area where the temperature did not exceed 85 degrees, hardly luxurious but at least imposed some limits on the ability of these prisoners to be exposed to heat. The county appealed, and again the court of appeals affirmed that order.

YOUNG: Well, the Bureau of Justice statistics from 2005 found that more than half of all prison inmates have mental health problems. And, you know, as you've been saying, they are more at risk being on medications and things like that. We know the University of Texas School of Law Human Rights Clinic issued a report calling attention to this problem of extreme heat and the lack of air conditioning.

But what do you say? I mean, there are some large prison systems that probably really can't afford to put air conditioning throughout the systems.

FATHI: Well, you don't necessarily have to air condition the entire system. If you have a reliable system for identifying the prisoners who are particularly vulnerable, either because they're elderly, or they have a chronic medical condition like heart disease or kidney disease, or because of the medications they're on, you can group those prisoners in one or two or a limited number of units and climate control just those units.

That's what, for example, the Baltimore City Jail has done. So it's not either-or. It's not either do nothing or climate control every single housing unit in your entire prison system.

YOUNG: Have you been in one of these overheated cells?

FATHI: I have. I was in the cells in the Wisconsin super-max when we did that case several years ago. I've also been, last July and August, in the cells in the Arizona state prison system, where we currently have a lawsuit ongoing that involves this issue.

And it was absolutely unbearable, even for short periods of time, and I'm a person in reasonably good health. I don't have any particular risk factors for heat injury, but it was inconceivable to me that I could survive these conditions for more than a very short period of time. But prisoners in Arizona, of course, are exposed to these conditions for days and weeks at a time during the hot summer months.

YOUNG: Do you think this is a constitutional issue?

FATHI: Absolutely. And several courts have said that extreme heat violates the Constitution. The Eighth Amendment prohibits cruel and unusual punishment, and what the Supreme Court has said that means is that prisons can't expose prisoners to conditions that pose a substantial risk of serious harm.

Prisons don't have to be comfortable, but they do have to be safe, and they can't expose prisoners to an unreasonable risk of injury or death. And so several courts have already ruled that extreme heat does pose such a great risk, at least to some prisoners, that it violates the Eighth Amendment.

YOUNG: David Fathi, director of the American Civil Liberties Union National Prison Project on the issue of overheated jail cells, back in the news after a man died in a New York prison this past February. David, thank you.

FATHI: Thank you, my pleasure.

YOUNG: So now we're aware of that. A quick note: The Twittersphere is afire responding to a tweet from "Wheel of Fortune" host Pat Sajak, who sent a missive out Monday night that read: I now believe global warming alarmists are unpatriotic racists, knowingly misleading for their own ends, good night. Well.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

YOUNG: Climate scientist Michael Mann was one of the first to tweet back: Will the eight-year-old who hacked Pat Sajak's account please return it to its rightful owner, and then later, hey, Pat Sajak, this ain't the "Wheel of Fortune." If we lose this game, it isn't just one person's misfortune. All humanity pays the price.

Most scientists believe the science is settled on climate change, and Twitter seemed to agree. From Tim Murphy(ph): Pat Sajak, do you expect bowel(ph) play? From Dave Ashry(ph): Yo, I think Pat Sajak is a crazy person, and I'd like to buy a vowel.

For his part, Pat Sajak, who supports Republican causes and likes posting controversial tweets, last April he came out as a heterosexual, said it's fun to poke the hornet's nest and watch it buzz. So want to join in? It's @PatSajak, or you can tweet us @hereandnowrobin, @jeremyhobson. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson host Here & Now, a live two-hour production of NPR and WBUR Boston.

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