Updated July 23 at 3:51 p.m.
As Massachusetts heads into a weekend of sweltering temperatures, prison advocates worry that the more than 13,000 people incarcerated in the state’s prisons and county jails are especially in danger of heat-related illnesses.
Massachusetts’ jails and prisons often don't have air conditioning. Many incarcerated people are medically vulnerable, and advocates say they are particularly at risk of illnesses, including heat stroke and seizures in buildings with little ventilation. High temperatures have caused alleged health issues in the past, leading at least one prisoner to file a complaint in court, and the issue is only expected to worsen as climate change makes hot days more frequent. Advocates are pushing for the creation of a state regulation to regulate what the maximum temperature can be in a cell.
Carlos Morales, who was released from prison last June, remembers being so hot during heat waves, he would beg corrections officers to leave the small opening in his cell door open.
He said the tiny fan in his cell just blew hot air at him. The fan cost him $26 at the canteen, according to the Department of Correction, and not everyone has the money to afford them.
“We would basically beg just to leave the trap door open so we could get a cross breeze,” said Morales, who now works for Black and Pink, a prison abolition organization that supports LGBTQ people.
“The temperature can rise very dramatically within the prisons and jails,’’ said Dr. Juliana Morris, a community health provider who has worked with incarcerated individuals. Morris says the rising heat and lack of relief is a “justice issue,” and “the medical complications are real.”
Jesse White, policy director at the Boston nonprofit Prisoners’ Legal Services of Massachusetts, says state officials should mandate maximum-heat levels to protect those behind bars, just like they mandate minimum levels during cooler months. White says advocates often find themselves imploring corrections officials to provide fans or ice for those particularly uncomfortable, unable to control what they wear or even the temperature of their showers.
“It's really tough inside because you have so little control over your environment,’’ she said. “The population is extraordinarily vulnerable.”
The Department of Correction says it has a trained environmental health and safety officer at each facility whose responsibilities include “monitoring the climate, taking proactive mitigation measures as needed, and addressing any concern raised by any person living or working there.” After publication, the Department of Public Health told GBH News that the department has received one complaint about air conditioning this summer and is working with the facility to address it.
A DOC spokesperson told GBH News that the department is prepared for “all New England weather conditions, including summer heat waves. ... We remain committed to maintaining safe, secure environments and taking proactive measures to ensure those living and working in the facilities stay hydrated and cool.”
Each facility reviews whether prisoners need to be moved during heat waves to cooler locations, officials say. A 2018 state advisory says since “many correctional facilities don’t not have air conditioning,’’ officials should provide drinking water, ice and fans when needed.
But prisoners advocates say this isn’t enough. At Bridgewater State Hospital, the state’s medium-security facility for men suffering from mental illness, there’s no air conditioning in the cells, according to the families of patients and emails from the medical provider obtained by GBH News.
For the air conditioning units that do work and exist at Bridgewater, their quality is in question. A 2022 report from nonprofit Disability Law Center on the facility showed a contractor found “mold inside” window units in a programming room used daily.
Tom Kavanaugh, a member of the Bridgewater State Hospital Families Group and who has a son housed there, says the DOC has told him it’s “not physically possible to install air conditioners at the facility.” He doesn’t believe it.
“Maybe it's impractical. Maybe it's cost prohibitive. But impossible, I find, is not a word I would ever accept,” he said. He and fellow group members are reaching out to the entire Beacon Hill delegation, the DOC and medical provider Wellpath over their concerns about high temperatures.
Harry, a Bridgewater parent who didn't want his last name to be used out of concern over retaliation against his son, told GBH News he purposefully shut off the air conditioning for an hour before his interview.
“I did that just to see how my son was feeling. And I’m like, ‘Oh, my gosh, that's brutal,’” he said. “And he's locked up in this little cage, literally a six-by-eight cage. Imagine.”
"It's really tough inside because you have so little control over your environment. ... The population is extraordinarily vulnerable."Jesse White, policy director at Prisoners’ Legal Services
Air-conditioning is also intermittent in county jails, where people are incarcerated with shorter sentences or awaiting trial.
In Franklin County, about 100 prisoners get a climate-controlled jail, which runs from solar power.
“It’s a really modern, and efficient system that we have here, and we're very fortunate with that,” Sheriff Chris Donelan said of the building built in 2007.
Over in Bristol County, Ash Street Jail — built in 1888 — isn’t air conditioned. The nearby House of Correction — built in 1990 — is. Altogether, most prisoners don't have air conditioning.
“Obviously we do everything we can to keep it as cool as possible with the current situation that we have,” said Bristol County Sheriff Thomas Hodgson, noting roughly four in five prisoners are in units without ACs. He has no plans to change that.
“We know the people on the outside are doing the right things, don't have that luxury of just going somewhere and having somebody throw air conditioning units in for them,’’ he said. “There are people who live in homes that can’t afford air conditioning, that rely on fans.”
At least one Massachusetts prisoner has taken his heat complaints to court.
In 2018, MCI-Cedar Junction prisoner Arthur Burnham filed a civil rights complaint saying that he and others at the facility endured temperatures “exceeding 120 degrees” in a unit with a glass roof and no working ventilation. Burnham alleged prison officials refused to turn on exhaust fans, and said it was a violation of the Eighth Amendment, which prohibits “cruel and unusual punishments.”
He said guards wouldn’t give him grievance forms, and the civil rights complaint caused guards to turn on the fans in every unit except his own in retaliation. Ten prisoners filed declarations of support, describing their own retellings of the heat wave, under perjury.
Burnham said one prisoner passed out and was removed in a wheelchair after submitting “medical slips” after telling guards he believed he was experiencing heat stroke. Another said in his declaration that he had severe headaches, difficulty breathing and high blood pressure of 148/98 on July 3, 2018, when it was 97 degrees in the town.
“Nurse stated my headache was due to high blood pressure and refused to talk about heat in unit,” the man wrote.
Burnham alleged four people fainted the next day, and on July 6, an 81-year old man “fell over on the ground unconscious due to extreme temperature in the block.” Burnham was released in 2018, court records show, and his case was dismissed.
Deeper than Water, a coalition of prisoner advocates, gained documents about audits at several state prisons in July 2018 that occurred a week after a heat wave as a result of complaints. The recommendations included more recommendations for fans and ice.
Deeper Than Water organizer Christine Mitchell says that little has changed in the four years since she received those reports. As climate change causes temperatures in the summer to increase, she’s worried it will play out in prisons.
“Based on what we heard from people inside, nothing changed,’’ she said. “The heat is still a huge issue.”
This article was updated to include the response from the Department of Public Health.