Record heat has made conditions tougher inside Florida's prisons.Record heat has made conditions tougher inside Florida's prisons.

Florida prisons grapple with ‘oppressive’ heat

Published on August 2, 2023 at 11:20 am

Nearly a month into a stifling heat wave, corrections officials are attempting to alleviate sweltering conditions in Florida’s unairconditioned prisons, but advocates for inmates say the efforts fall short and aren’t being carried out the same way at all facilities.

Throughout July, inmates’ supporters pressed the Department of Corrections to take steps to offer some relief to the roughly 85,000 people locked up in prisons.

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Last week, advocates scored a victory when department officials agreed to allow inmates to wear shorts and T-shirts instead of the mandated standard “Class A” clothing — undershirts, dress shirts, underwear, long pants, socks and shoes or boots — for most of the day.

Senate Criminal and Civil Justice Appropriations Chairwoman Jennifer Bradley, a Republican whose sprawling North Florida district includes a number of prisons, said she has worked for weeks with Department of Corrections Secretary Ricky Dixon to find ways to mitigate the effects of what has been record-breaking heat in some areas of the state.

“This is something that has been an issue for many, many years. But this summer has been really unprecedented, unrelenting. I hear from (inmates’) loved ones, but more importantly, I visit prisons and when I go and visit, it is just oppressive,” Bradley, R-Fleming Island, told The News Service of Florida this week, adding that the state has “an aging prison population” that also will have to be addressed in the future.

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Many prisons are decades old — as an example, Union Correctional Institution, which is in Bradley’s district, has been operating since 1913 — and installing air conditioning in all facilities would be expensive and take years to complete. Also, some aging facilities don’t have infrastructure that can be retrofitted for modern cooling systems.

Temperatures inside buildings without air conditioning can soar 15 degrees higher than the temperature outside. That means temperatures over 100 degrees last month put the thermometer above 115 inside prisons in some regions.

Dixon late last week “temporarily lifted uniform restrictions” to permit inmates to wear shorts and T-shirts, or “Class C” uniforms, Department of Corrections spokesman Paul Walker confirmed.

Bradley praised Dixon’s move.

“There was a free solution out there, and that was to allow inmates to wear shorts and T-shirts, to just change the uniform requirements, so that they weren’t wearing long pants and multiple layers on top … So really it was a change in policy that was no cost to DOC (the Department of Corrections),” Bradley said. “Does it get us where we need to be? No. But it is a really good, great, first step by DOC. Absolutely.”

But Denise Rock, executive director of Florida Cares Charity Corp., said not all inmates are being allowed to shed extra layers. As she fields hundreds of messages from inmates’ loved ones expressing concern about the heat and reporting conditions at facilities, Rock said not all prisons are following Dixon’s directive.

“It just seems to be wildly all over the place, not any consistency with institutions. So we still are continuing to go back and forth to try and get some consistency,” Rock told the News Service. “I believe that the administration up in Tallahassee, I believe they get it. But the boots on the ground, those officers, they don’t.”

Rock’s group for weeks pleaded with corrections officials to relax the uniform standards. But she’s also asking them to reduce indoor temperatures by turning off lights during the day, boosting the number of fans in common living areas and providing access to showers throughout the day.

When asked about mitigation measures, department spokesman Walker said the agency has “air-conditioned housing units serving the most vulnerable inmate populations, including the infirmed, mentally ill, pregnant and geriatric.”

Day-use areas, including chapels, medical facilities and administration offices, are equipped with air conditioning, Walker added. Institutions also are audited and comply with federal standards.

Some prisons built before air conditioning was common “were instead designed to facilitate airflow to provide natural cooling within them,” according to Walker.

“All non-air-conditioned dorms use some form of climate control to mitigate heat, such as fans or exhaust systems, which create a high level of air exchange to cool the building. These housing units also incorporate other fans, such as a ceiling or wall-mounted circulation fans. In addition, all housing units contain refrigerated water fountains to provide a source of cool water for the inmate population,” he said.

The department did not respond to several requests for Dixon’s memo about the uniform standards. Rock is pressing corrections officials to be more open about what they’re doing to address the heat.

“We could handle this so much better if DOC would be transparent and just share the memo,” she said. “So we all know what should be done, and then when a warden isn’t doing it, or the officer isn’t doing it on the institutional level, somebody can share. Why does it have to be a big secret?”

Meanwhile, Bradley said corrections officials also pledged to provide inmates “greater access to cold water” as the heat persists.

“These are things that we should be able, as a state, to provide — cold water, cool uniforms. These are things, short of AC, that do make a difference,” she said.

Bradley said she’s continuing to work with corrections officials to explore other mitigation efforts, such as providing more shade around outdoor pavilions and using misting fans.

Cynthia Cooper said her husband, Vohn, was in confinement last week in a small cell with no windows and no ventilation at Tomoka Correctional Institution in Volusia County. Four “medium-sized” wall fans and a large exhaust fan were inadequate to cool a common area, she said.

“Right now, it’s 97 degrees where I’m at. So if it’s 97 degrees outside, you have to add 15 degrees to that inside that dorm. There’s 80 men in that dorm. It’s just ridiculous,” she told the News Service.

Sen. Jason Pizzo, D-Hollywood, also has visited numerous prisons and receives messages from inmates’ loved ones about conditions at the facilities.

Pizzo said he relayed concerns posted on social media to corrections officials. Speaking to the News Service, he rattled off a number of issues at institutions throughout the state, including a broken water line at one facility that led prison staff to provide bottled water to inmates.

“We have really old, dilapidated, inefficient structures and plants and operations that need to be replaced,” Pizzo said.

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