The pandemic brought a lot of HVAC-related issues to the public’s attention. One of these was the state of IAQ in prisons and jails. COVID spread quickly in these facilities due to the close nature of confinement.
At least one correctional institution sought a solution. After recording 70 positive tests among inmates last summer, the Alachua County Jail in Gainesville, Florida, invested in needlepoint bipolar ionization technology from Global Plasma Solutions. The jail administration used money from the federal CARES Act to pay for the system in the 400-square-foot facility, which houses 1,000 inmates.
COVID is becoming less of an issue in prisons, with about half of the population vaccinated. But heat is now moving to the forefront of concerns. As the western half of the U.S. sees record-high temperatures, groups are drawing attention to the lack of air conditioning in many prisons. The topic was even featured on HBO’s “Last Week Tonight.”
Solving the problem is extremely challenging, however, said Tommy Norris, president and CEO of GreenPrisons.org. The main issue is that many prisons are old, pre-dating the widespread use of air conditioning. San Quentin State Prison in California started housing inmates prior to the Civil War. New York’s Sing Sing had been operating for 30 years by then. Neither operates in their original housing, but the additions aren’t that recent either. While these are extreme examples, they are not uncommon.
“Putting the ductwork in for a/c alone would be so expensive, it would be cheaper to tear down the prison and build it again,” Norris said.
A Lack of Funding and Low Priority
States and even the federal government lack the funding for that, or at least it’s not a current priority. Some groups are suing state governments in attempt to force them address the lack of air conditioning in prisons. The highest profile suit is in Texas, where more than two-thirds of the prisons lack air conditioning. The state House of Representatives had authorized spending $300 million to install air conditioning over the course of seven years. The bill has yet to pass on the state Senate and is dependent on federal funding. Officials from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice have argued the cost will prove much higher than $300 million.
Norris said a main hurdle for these kind of lawsuits is that they must prove cruel and unusual punishment. That becomes difficult when the prison’s employees suffer under the same conditions. Norris knows these conditions firsthand, having worked several years in a central Kentucky prison that was built as part of the Work Progress Administration during the Great Depression. The goal then was to keep people inside, so the walls consist of 24-inch masonry brick.
“It’s like living in a pizza oven,” Norris said.
The only air conditioning was in the hospital and the administration building. The guards sweated right along with the inmates. Norris said prison officials would prefer air conditioning in their facilities. It improves employee morale and makes the prisoners easier to manage.
“Back in the day, no one cared how miserable prisons were, how unhealthy they were, any of the kind of stuff,” Norris said “I think any prison administrator today would tell you if they had their druthers, they would want a/c in the housing units.”
But again, the money isn’t there. An increase in incarceration may drive some new construction and facilities will be replaced over time. Until then, the best most prisons can do is install fans. In addition, inmates can purchase individual fans in the prison commissary.
“Until we can age out of some of these institutions, I don’t see any change coming any time soon,” Norris said. “You’ve got to want to lock folks up real bad to put the state in debt for that kind of money.”