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Advocates say now is the time to implement air-conditioning in Florida prisons

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Advocates say now is the time to implement air-conditioning in Florida prisons

Nov 15, 2023 | 5:33 pm ET
By Mitch Perry
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Advocates say now is the time to implement air-conditioning in Florida prisons
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Democratic Rep. Angie Nixon introducing her bill calling for air-conditioning in Florida prisons on Nov. 15, 2023 (photo credit: Angie Nixon's staff)

Florida Department of Corrections Secretary Ricky Dixon told lawmakers last month that 75 percent of all housing units in Florida’s corrections system lack air-conditioning and that it would cost hundreds of millions of dollars to install it.

It’s not a new issue, but with the state suffering from record heat this past summer, prison-rights advocates say it’s time has come.

At the state Capitol on Wednesday, Jacksonville Democratic House Rep. Angie Nixon held a press conference to announce legislation (HB 181) requiring that each state correctional institution in the state “shall provide” a portable air-conditioner or air-cooling system in each inmate housing unit adequate in size and number to each dormitory or sleeping area in good working order at all times. Jacksonville Democrat Tracie Davis has filed a similar measure (SB 296) in the state Senate.

This is not the first time that a legislator has attempted to address the lack of air-conditioning in Florida prisons. For the past several years, Tampa House Democrat Dianne Hart, who has visited 56 prisons in Florida since being elected to her seat in 2018, has included language in a “Treatment of Inmates” bill to establish that a basic right for inmates is to have “proper ventilation in their housing units.”

“We have people who have heat strokes in our prisons,” Hart said in Tampa last month during a criminal justice reform conference. “It’s just too darned hot. Our pregnant women. When I visited Lowell, our pregnant women, they didn’t have air. … After seeing us, they [authorities] were able to repair it miraculously. But it’s sad that it takes legislators going into prisons in order to get things done.”

The drive to get air-conditioning in Florida prisons has been led by Connie Edson, who became an advocate after her daughter was incarcerated and told her that there was no air-conditioning in the facility she was serving in. “I started researching it and, oh my god, most of our state prisons don’t have A/C and we’re talking the beginning of 2020,” Edson said in Tampa last month. “We’re sending people out to the universe and we can’t get air conditioning?”

Stifling heat

Edson became motivated enough to try to find a way to provide some relief to inmates from the stifling heat in Florida correction facilities. That led her to work with Gainesville Democratic House member Yvonne Hayes Hinson and the Department of Corrections last year to start a pilot project at Lowell Correctional Institution — the largest women’s prison in the state — by testing three portable evaporative coolers as a low-cost alternative to beat the heat.

The problem is hardly unique to Florida. USA Today reported last year that prisons in at least 44 states aren’t fully air-conditioned.

“The absence of air-conditioning in prisons and jails is a disaster waiting to happen,” said David Fathi, director of the ACLU National Prison Project, in an interview with the States Newsroom in August. “This is not an issue of comfort or luxury, it is an issue of life and death. … The decision not to air-condition these facilities is essentially a decision to let people die.”

There is no database nationally or in Florida when it comes to tracking air conditioning across all U.S. prisons. In Texas, where like Florida the majority of prisons lack air-conditioning, a report by an environmental epidemiologist at Brown University’s School of Public Health found that 271 prisoners died of heat-related causes in un-air-conditioned Texas prisons between 2001 and 2019.

Whether the proposal will move at all in the Florida GOP-controlled Legislature is uncertain.

During the Senate Appropriations Committee on Criminal and Civil Justice on Wednesday, Lee County Republican state Sen. Jonathan Martin took aim at the inclusion of money listed to air-condition Florida prisons in a study commissioned by the state to modernize the corrections system. The report calls for the state to spend $582 million.