People incarcerated in Alabama’s prisons face heat dangers as hot weather continues
Former inmates say ‘mind-altering’ heat exacerbated problems in state correctional facilities
A prison cell in Holman Correctional Facility in Atmore, Alabama, as seen on Oct. 22, 2019. (File)
The high heat in Alabama’s prisons could bring Danny Dandridge to a standstill.
When temperatures hit or exceeded 100 degrees in the state’s aging facilities, Dandridge would see guys pass out.
“There have been times when I had to just lay in bed and not move because as soon as I moved, you just started sweating so bad,” said Dandridge, who served 19 years in prison on several separate charges before being released in April. “I have seen dudes just fall out. It is scary. It is pathetic how hot it is in the dorms, and they won’t do anything about it.”
The heat in Alabama’s prisons has been conditions that inmates face during the hottest months of the year has been an ongoing subject for discussion among criminal justice reform advocates working to alleviate the perils in the state’s correctional facilities.
“It is absolutely miserable,” said Ashley Light, a senior staff attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center, who toured the prisons as part of an ongoing lawsuit over prison conditions. “Especially in some of the larger dorms, the air gets very thick. Some of the larger dorms can have between 100-150 people in the dorm, on bunk beds. Not a whole lot of space to move around, not a lot of air movement through the building.”
Potential solutions are complicated, partly because federal courts have yet to settle on a standard for how dire an environment must become before a prison violates Eighth Amendment protections against cruel and unusual punishment.
But the heat and humidity are among many issues making life precarious for Alabama’s inmates. Overcrowding and a shortage of corrections officers have fed a tide of violence that has led to a lawsuit from the U.S. Department of Justice. But for those who have served time in prisons, the heat was as inescapable as anything else.
Extreme temperature conditions affect incarcerated people around the country, and it is unclear just how many of Alabama’s inmates have become sick because of the heat conditions. Although Corrections provides figures on deaths in its prisons in its quarterly report, it does not break it down by the cause.
The heat, for many, is deadly. According to a study of prison mortality data between 2001 and 2019 published in March in the Public Library of Science, a 10-degree increase in temperature leads to an average 6.7% increase in deaths from heart disease for incarcerated people.
“Unsurprisingly, deaths in prisons increase when extreme events occur,” said Mike Wessler, communications director for the Prison Policy Initiative, a criminal justice reform think tank that does research and advocates for policies to limit mass incarceration. “These extreme heat events are more and more common.”
The heat also takes a toll on mental health. According to the study, suicide deaths increased an average of 22% for up to three days after incarcerated people endured a single day of extremely high temperatures.
““People feel pretty helpless when they are roasting in 100-degree temperatures for days at a time,” Wessler said.
According to a policy brief published by the Prison Policy Initiative in 2019, 13 states, including Alabama, do not have integrated central air conditioning within their facilities. That list includes other states in the deep South, such as Mississippi, Louisiana and Georgia.
Alabama prisons generally have air conditioning available at infirmaries and mental health treatment areas, according to those who have toured the facilities. They are also available where corrections officers congregate.
In a statement, the Alabama Department of Corrections said all of its facilities have some areas with heat and air conditioning.
“Please note that large, industrial fans are utilized in the areas without air conditioning,” the statement said. “The safety of inmates and staff at the state’s correctional facilities is a priority at ADOC. New correctional facilities will have conditioned air that will meet the comfort zone descriptions in the American Corrections Association Standards.”
Dandridge, who rotated through 15 facilities while serving time on charges of attempted murder, receiving stolen property and identity theft, participated in rehabilitation and vocational training, and later served in inmate control system (ICS), working for the staff running the prisons and sometimes walking with officers.
“They have this gun, it is a temperature check for the dorms, and they go in the dorm and hold this little gun, like a scanner, and they can hit it,” he said. “They hit it and it can tell you the temperature. I have seen the temperature up to 125 degrees, 130 degrees, in that dorm.”
Ricky Reynolds, who served 17 years in prison after being convicted of manslaughter, said in an interview last month that the heat could be “mind-altering.”
“Imagine this building with the heat on right now in this weather, and you are trapped in it,” he said.
The heat would begin to become an issue in the spring and remain a problem through September. Reynolds said some inmates would rise early to “get those last four hours of coolness.”
“Once the sun rises, it’s a wrap,” he said of the facilities where he stayed. “The temperature is going to go from 55 degrees to 85 degrees in a matter of 30 minutes. Then the DOC is going to turn on the lights.”
Inmates were given ice once in the morning and again in the evening, part of a regular schedule that included head counts, meals and medication. The ice came in a cup, bowl or any other available container. Ice was a lower priority than food or medication, Reynolds said, and if a prison experienced a staffing shortage, it might not be delivered.
The worst part of the day, Reynolds said, was early afternoon between noon and 2pm, when lunch was served. The inmates understood there would be no ice served then.
“You are basically in a hot building and there is no more ice left because everyone has eaten up all the ice from that morning,” Reynolds said. “It was rough. It was extremely rough. It is so hot.”
At the point when “you think you are going to lose your mind,” Reynolds said, the sun would set and another round of ice arrived. “Then it is bedtime again,” he said. “It is a vicious cycle that never stops.”
As is the case generally with senior citizens, inmates over the age of 65 are particularly vulnerable to the dangers.
“You got older inmates, those senior citizens, they can’t take it,” Dandridge said. “They are having medical issues about it. We had to rush them to the infirmary because it is so hot in those dorms.”
Ronald McKeithen, a re-entry coordinator for Alabama Appleseed who served 37 years for an armed robbery conviction at age 19, said the heat could get so bad in the kitchens that one could see sweat dripping off those serving food.
“It was sticky,” McKeithen said. “It is like when you take a shower, but once that sticky film hits you, whatever breeze might come into the room, you are not going to really feel it.”
Those who work with inmates say the heat is a frequent topic of conservation.
“I talk to guys on the phone almost every day,” said Scott Fuqua, a legal fellow with Alabama Appleseed who works with incarcerated people. “I have all my clients call to check in either weekly or every other week, at least on a monthly basis. A frequent topic they bring up is how unbearable it is in the summer.”
One of his clients, incarcerated at Limestone Correctional Facility in Harvest, works with an over, putting pieces of metal together to cure paint.
“Just imagine how hot it is with a 400-degree or 500-degree oven, and putting stuff in and out of it in a building that has got no air conditioning,” Fuqua said. “He said that it gets so hot that you can barely stand it.”
Prison construction adds to the problems. Most are built of concrete and steel, which tend to retain heat.
“It is all concrete,” Light said. “There are white cinderblock walls in most places. Some of the different facilities may have sheet rock that is painted in some portions of the building. They are overcrowded. There are bunk beds everywhere. It is generally just very hot.”
Many prisons also have poor ventilation, with few or no windows.
“If there is a window at all, it is often rather small, up high, and sometimes doesn’t open at all,” Wessler said. “In some cases, making it more of a greenhouse effect where the window makes it hotter. Because the air can’t circulate at all, the heat stays inside the prison and temperatures increase.”
David Lowe, who spent 21 years in prison for a life sentence on a drug trafficking charge, said some inmates would find ways to cool off.
“They might pay somebody $50 to tear the microwave up just for them to get the motor out of the microwave to make themselves a fan,” he said. “They would rather not eat and make a fan. That is about the craziest thing I have seen.”
What is too much heat?
The heat also has an impact on the safety and wellbeing of those living within the prison’s walls.
“We’ve seen that disciplinaries tend to go up in the summers,” Light said. “It has also been researched that people tend to get more agitated in the summers, and that means there will be more fights, there will be more general issues.”
Former inmates agreed.
“If a person is violent, he is going to show up violent during those heat hours,” Reynolds said. “That same guy, you are praying he goes into the shower and falls back (pass out), because heat brings on frustration. Everybody doesn’t have coping skills, so when it is hot, you owe them money, this is not the time to be owing people money.”
The question is when heat becomes so oppressive that it becomes illegal. The courts generally look at how high or low temperatures are and what prison authorities do to mitigate the risk.
“There is not any kind of cutoff where the courts have said that it is for sure a violation if it is over a specific number of degrees for a certain number of days,” Light said. “It is just a case-by-case analysis of how bad it is and if each, individual situation, is designated to be an ‘extreme deprivation.’”
The U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, which covers Alabama, Florida and Georgia, sided with prison authorities in two different heat-related cases, both out of Florida.
In Chandler v. Crosby, a 2000 lawsuit filed by death row inmates, the three-panel court rejected claims that high temperatures in Florida prisons amounted to cruel and unusual punishment.
“First, while no one would call the summertime temperatures at the Unit pleasant, the heat is not unconstitutionally excessive,” the court wrote in its opinion. “The district court found that ‘the building mass remains at a relatively constant temperature, between approximately eighty degrees at night to approximately eighty-five or eighty-six degrees during the day.’ The cells were sometimes hotter than this, but not often.”
In Saunders v. Sheriff of Brevard County, the federal court of appeals reversed a lower court decision ruling that a person who had been placed in a hot, crowded and unsanitary mental housing unit, known as “The Bubble,” did not have their Eighth or 14th Amendment rights violated because of qualified immunity.
“Even the most charitable view of the record before us does not show that the Bubble’s ventilation — or lack thereof — produced the “excessive risk to inmate health or safety” that the law requires,” the court wrote in its opinion.
The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a district court’s ruling that the personnel of the Sheriff’s department did not have qualified immunity.
“The Eighth Amendment has a really hard standard to meet,” Light said. “It is a mix of both ‘Factually, is it bad enough’ and ‘What is the department actually doing to try and fix it?’ These cases are horrible. It is unfortunate that judges don’t go stand in the prison and tour for an hour or two on a hot day to see how bad it gets.”
Attempts to alleviate heat in Alabama’s prisons could face issues. In some Alabama prisons, former inmates said, ice was provided on a first-come, first-serve basis.
“If you weren’t a badass, you weren’t going to get any ice,” Reynolds said. “That is how it was set up.”
“Everybody would run up there. If you were just a regular person or lower in the caste system, you didn’t get any ice,” he said of the ice situation back when he was younger. “There are certain people who can’t even go into the ice.”
McKeithen said some inmates would trade ice for other luxuries, such as cigarettes. Others who would get ice to keep their drinks cold would mark up the price of what they had and sell it to other inmates.
“I want you to remember this right here,” Reynolds said. “Someone told me one time, ‘even Navy SEALs get a break,’ when you are in the Alabama prison system, there is no break.”
Many of the advocates said that many of these issues, the games, the sick calls, along with the misbehavior could be addressed by dealing with that heat. That includes installing central air conditioning.
“Animals don’t deserve to be treated like this,” Dandridge said.
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