Should Florida air condition its prisons?

The following editorial was published in The Daily Sun on Dec 1, 2023.

OUR POSITION: The cost of providing air conditioning to Florida’s state prisons is staggering but the cost of human suffering may be worse.

Some people take a hard line when it comes to inmates in Florida’s state prisons. They would argue that criminals shouldn’t be coddled.

And, at a reported cost of $582 million to air condition all of the state’s prisons, many taxpayers may agree with that opinion.

But what we’re talking about isn’t coddling. It’s a matter of human suffering and constitutional rights.

Florida isn’t alone in subjecting prisoners to harsh — even deathly — heat. There are 44 states that do not provide air conditioning at all their prisons. Many of those, including 10 southern states, have almost no air conditioning.

Two Florida legislators have filed a bill to force the state to provide some type of cooler air in prisons where cells in this past summer’s record-breaking heat reached 100 degrees or more. The bill would force each prison to install a portable air conditioner or some sort of air-cooling system inside dorm units before July 1 of 2024, according to an Orlando Sentinel story.

For those who choke on the cost of that — or the even higher price for central air in prisons — there is a matter not only of human suffering but a potential cost of lawsuits.

Texas is a good example of the problems that Florida faces.

A USA Today report chronicled the issue in Texas prisons which are almost all without air conditioning.

Heat exhaustion can be felt beginning at 80 degrees, with the risk for heat stroke beginning at around 91 degrees, according to a Texas A& M study, in the USA Today article. The study showed temperatures inside correctional units in the state regularly reach 110 degrees. At least one unit has topped 149 degrees, the study said.

Florida’s heat and humidity likely equal or exceed those temperatures in the dog days of summer.

Quintero Jones, who was was asthmatic and had high blood pressure, died in his Texas cell when temperatures climbed to 100 or so.

Jones, 37, was taking medications that can affect sensitivity to heat, according to the story.

He died in July 2015, lying on the floor of his cell when he had an asthma attack exacerbated by the heat, according to a lawsuit filed by his family and the USA Today story. Texas had to pay for his death.

Florida State Rep. LaVon Bracy Davis, of Orange County, told the Orlando Sentinel that Florida “must make it clear that air conditioning is not a luxury, it’s a basic human right and necessity for human decency.”

For those who would allow inmates to roast in their cells rather than pay the millions to air condition our prisons, they might consider just how basic air conditioning is to Florida.

The state would never have grown like it did in the 1950s and ‘60s without air conditioning. Old timers can tell you how Englewood and other areas blossomed after air conditioning became common in the late 1950s.

Right now, according to the Orlando Sentinel, only about 25% of state prison dorms in Florida have any type of air conditioning. Those units are reserved for the critically ill, mentally ill, pregnant inmates and the very elderly.

We understand the challenge to air condition our prisons. And, unfortunately, that is only part of the problem in our crumbling prison structures that are all in need of repairs and upgrades.

But, if state lawmakers want to do the decent thing and provide air conditioning, they need to make it a priority. It will take, by all estimates, 20 years to get air conditioning installed in our prisons.