Managing the heat: Prisoners and wildlife cope with conditions
Rev. Candace McKibben
It is not that I did not understand the importance of visiting prisoners. I have known since I was a child that Jesus taught us to care for prisoners. In the 25th chapter of Matthew, Jesus tells the parable of the sheep and the goats and concludes that those who feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe those who need clothing, look after the sick and visit the prisoners, no matter how unimportant these people may seem, are in fact doing these things for Jesus and will be blessed for it.
Somehow, in my lifelong ministry I have been responsive to the first five of these six important ministry opportunities, but not at all involved in the sixth.
That is until a friend became a prisoner and my husband and I started to visit him. Now my eyes are opened to a world of human suffering to which I had not been attuned. When asked, this friend, sitting on the clearly labeled prisoner side of the table, tells us about the prison culture and the ways in which he feels dehumanized by it. He says that he gets it. He says he knows that prisoners have done terrible things and deserve the disdain they receive, but he also knows it is not helpful and it feels hurtful.
I recently heard an interview on NPR about prison conditions during this severely hot summer. It is the sort of interview that I might have only heard in theory in the past, but now my friend comes to my heart and mind, and I pause to wonder how he is managing. When we visit, he gets to go to the canteen, which is one of few places on campus that is air-conditioned. It adds a new imperative for us to visit as often as possible.
When I ask how he is managing the heat, he talks not only about the difficulties of falling asleep or staying asleep, the discomfort of sweating and not having any means of cooling down, and the difficulty of maintaining personal hygiene, but also the ways in which the heat is impacting his emotional stability and that of other prisoners and staff.
I think of another NPR report citing a new study that concludes that violence among prisoners increases as outdoor temperatures rise and the importance of our paying attention to humane prison conditions. I recall a female prisoner quoted as saying, “We wouldn’t treat our animals this way,” and the interviewer indicating that in fact, some Florida counties require dog kennels to provide air-conditioning and air-ventilation, but not prisons.
I know I have heard public service announcements lately about keeping your pet safe in extreme heat conditions, but not a public outcry about safety for prisoners.
Wildlife trying to chill
On my routine daily walks this week, I encountered something I have never seen in my neighborhood. Deer. On two consecutive days without rain, on two different streets, I saw deer crossing the road in front of me. I tried to imagine where they had come from and where they were headed. I wondered if it had to do with the heat.
I have heard about recent social media posts of squirrels “splooting.” Splooting is behavior some animals use to cool their body temperature. Squirrels are finding cool surfaces and lying on their stomachs, legs spread, to cool off. While it may look charming, it is a sign of distress for the squirrels.
On a boat ride a few days ago at Wakulla Springs, the park ranger pointed out the jiggling throats of anhinga drying their spread wings while perched on a circle of cypress knees. He told us “gular fluttering” was one of the ways that the birds cooled themselves down on hot days. Some bird species open their beaks and vibrate their gular (throat tissues), rapidly pumping air back and forth in their system, creating a very efficient form of evaporative cooling.
Even the birds along the cool Wakulla River are hot.
With much of the Southern US under heat advisories, millions of people, as well as their pets, are facing dangerous, extreme temperatures. And experts remind us, if you and your pets are uncomfortable with the heat, the wildlife probably is too.
The last 21 days on earth have been the hottest on record, with extreme heat in North America, China, and Europe. Climate change is on track to make it unbearably hot in prisons across our country, not just the South, where prisoner advocacy efforts have traditionally focused. Prisoners with underlying medical conditions or those taking medications that exacerbate the effects of excessive heat are most vulnerable, along with the growing population of prisoners who are aging.
Heartache and ministry
I had a recent conversation with the parent of a grown child who was murdered. The parent indicated that caring about prisoners who are sweltering in this heat is not a priority for her. I felt insensitive to have spoken my concern in this parent’s presence.
My heart goes out to this family and to the many victims of violence and crime whose lives have been forever changed by the actions of those who now fill our prisons. It is painful to even think about the intense grief and sorrow they are managing to live with. How understandable for them not to care that prisoners are hot.
It seems then more imperative than ever that those of us who are able to care, look for ways to give voice to our concerns. And one way to show concern, is to visit the prisoners.
It was visiting the prison, learning from my friend what he is encountering and how he is trying to stay positive, seeing other families interact at the tables in the canteen where visitation occurs, seeing young children brighten when they spot their father, or grandmothers embrace their young adult grandsons with the unconditional love that they need, that has helped me to humanize those who I have managed to keep off my ministerial radar for most of my life.
In a report by USA Today, David Fathi, the head of the American Civil Liberties Union’s (ACLU) National Prison Project says, “The Eighth Amendment of the Constitution prohibits cruel and unusual punishment, meaning while prisons don’t necessarily have to be comfortable, they do have to be humane.” Since the United States is the only democracy in the world that has no independent authority to monitor prison conditions and enforce minimal standards of health and safety, we need groups like the ACLU to create awareness.
We also need those who can find it in their hearts to care, to do so. Jesus was not alone in calling for the visitation of and care for prisoners (Matthew 25: 39, 43). Most religions, spiritualities, and people of goodwill can see the value in treating the prisoner as human. Humane conditions seem like an important place to start, and I pray that those of us who are able will look for meaningful ways to be part of the solution.
The Rev. Candace McKibben is an ordained minister and pastor of Tallahassee Fellowship.