A majority of state correctional institutions still lack air-conditioning in housing areas. Only 18 of Florida's 50 largest facilities have access to the cool air needed to lower body temperatures during periods of extreme heat. On hot days, the temperature inside prison cells can reach higher than 112 degrees Fahrenheit. When humidity is added, the heat index can exceed well above that threshold.
"This is deeply appalling," says Greg Newburn, director of Florida state policy at the FAMM Foundation. "We treat thousands of people in a way we wouldn't treat animals."
Earlier today, criminal justice advocates took a simulated prison cell to the University of Miami's campus to raise awareness about the lack of air conditioning and ventilation in Florida's state prisons. The event, dubbed Beat the Heat, challenged students to sit in a closed room for three minutes to truly understand the excruciating heat 50,000 prisoners face every day in the Sunshine State.
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Even with plenty of clouds overhead, I was already sweating before I ever set foot inside of the mock prison cell stationed outside the Whitten University Center on campus. I felt the pressure inside the cell change as soon as the doors closed, blocking airflow from the outside. I had a headache by the time my three-minute challenge ended, and I left the cell notably more light-headed than when I had entered. I was handed a warm bottle of water on my way out because ice is considered too dangerous to be allowed in state prisons.
Newburn says participants like myself were lucky the clouds had obscured the direct heat of the sun. Temperatures in the simulated prison cell reached only 90 degrees instead of the much higher ones prisoners experience daily.
Heat is already the number one climate killer in the world, and days with extreme heat are predicted to increase in South Florida as the world warms due to climate change. Prolonged exposure can cause deadly illnesses, such as heatstroke and dehydration, and exacerbate mental-health problems. Certain medications can make inmates even more susceptible to heat, and Florida's aging prison population is at particular risk.
"I've stood in the dorms where there is no air," state Rep. Dianne Hart said at the event at UM. "People need to understand what's going on in our facilities. Florida prisons need A/C."