Nov 16, 2023 - News

Lawmakers weigh brutal heat in Florida prisons, high cost for AC

A hut at the entrance to a prison that reads, "Think safety."

The south unit of the Central Florida Reception Center, a state prison facility in Orlando. Photo: Ricardo Ramirez Buxeda/Orlando Sentinel/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

Eddie Fordham remembers the sweat. It sprang from his skin the second he finished showering. It stuck his shirt to his back so tightly that another inmate had to help him get undressed. And it became his saving grace overnight, cooling him down as he laid beneath his bunk where he'd discovered the slightest flow of air, a shred of relief.

  • Spending 31 years, two months and eight days in Florida prisons without air conditioning will breed some creative solutions.

State of play: 75% of inmate housing units in Florida prisons don't have air conditioning, Florida Department of Corrections secretary Ricky Dixon told a committee of state senators last month.

  • And a report by consultants presented to senators on Nov. 15, put a hefty price tag on fixing that: $582 million.

Why it matters: This past summer was the planet's hottest on record, with the heat index in some parts of Florida regularly breaking 100 degrees — and scientists project it will only get hotter as climate change continues, heightening the risk of heat stroke and death.

Plus: Along with the threats to physical health, extreme heat can cause tempers to flare and make it difficult for inmates to focus on anything but survival, said Denise Rock, executive director of Florida Cares, an advocacy organization for incarcerated people.

  • That doesn't bode well for the system's goal of rehabilitation, she said.

What they're saying: "These are people coming home one day, and we have the power to guide them onto a path for change," said Fordham, who was released last year and has been living in Thonotosassa. "Let's get them to a place … where they can think about their future."

Catch up fast: Many Florida prisons were built before air conditioning was a common amenity. The decades-old facilities have a long list of maintenance needs that make retrofitting them with cooling systems more complicated, Dixon told lawmakers.

  • The Department of Corrections is also facing a staffing crisis so dire that Gov. Ron DeSantis deployed the Florida National Guard to help run several prisons. The lack of AC is among the reasons that the agency struggles with recruitment.
  • Dixon appeared to support a path to air-conditioning, saying at last month's meeting that "it's not a question of whether we air-condition or not. It's how we get there."

The latest: Last year, the agency brought three portable coolers into Lowell Correctional Institution north of Ocala for a pilot program to test whether the coolers could offer a lower-cost solution.

  • Activist Connie Edson, who helped spearhead the program, told Axios the units didn't work for the space and were dripping water on bunks.
  • She's now working with the agency to test mini-split AC units, some of which retail for less than $1,000. Edson helped facilitate a donation of one of the units to Lowell and said it should be up and running by Thanksgiving.
  • The agency also loosened clothing requirements for inmates and brought ice water into prisons to help alleviate the extreme heat, Rock said.

Meanwhile, state Rep. Angie Nixon and state Sen. Tracie Davis, both Democrats from Jacksonville, filed bills this month that would require air conditioning in prison housing units.

Between the lines: Getting legislative buy-in is key, Rock said. Lawmakers in the past haven't shown much interest in addressing the problem.

  • At the Nov. 15 meeting, state Sen. Jonathan Martin, a Republican from Lee County, questioned whether adding air conditioning would be worth the investment.

Reality check: To Fordham, the lived experiences of incarcerated people should go a long way in convincing skeptics. Despite the brutal conditions, he found ways to cope, getting an education in prison that set him up for a job at Feeding Tampa Bay after his release.

  • "I just chose to be better than the way I was being treated."
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