Opinion: Hot Fla. prisons are dangerous for COs

Tampa Bay Times Editorial Board
Tampa Bay Times

TAMPA, Fla. — We are aware that few Floridians spend time worrying about furnacelike conditions inside the state’s 143 prison facilities, where many of the housing units need replacing and fewer than 1 in 4 has air conditioning. But even if you can’t muster up sympathy for tens of thousands of sweltering inmates, how about for the prison guards and other employees facing the same, often horrendous, conditions?

Making anyone work inside a prison in feels-like temperatures over 100 degrees — as has been the case in parts of Florida for the better part of two weeks — is cruel and self-defeating. There is ample evidence the conditions are contributing to a high quit rate among prison guards, worsening a shortfall that is so dire Gov. Ron DeSantis had to order members of the Florida National Guard to fill in.

So how bad is it inside Florida’s prison walls? On the worst days, say prisoner advocates, indoor temperatures can easily exceed 100 degrees, making prison life dangerous and inhumane. It’s not much better for the guards.

“You get to a point where you felt like you were going to pass out,’’ Jacob Harris, a former Florida corrections officer, told the Orlando Sentinel recently.

“It’s dangerous for staff, dangerous for inmates,’’ said Peter Kelson, another former corrections officer who talked to the Sentinel. “… I wasn’t willing to go back.’’

This isn’t a new problem. As long as there have been Florida prisons there have been inhumane conditions. (Does anyone else remember “Cool Hand Luke,” a film now almost 60 years old?) And it’s not just Florida’s problem. Last year, at least 14 states lacked universal air conditioning in their prisons, according to Economist.com. Not surprisingly, many of them are in the South.

In Tallahassee, at least, there appears to be a general consensus on both sides of the legislative aisle that conditions need to improve. One goal should be to reduce the amount of heat-related medical expenses inside the prisons now being paid by Florida residents. Another would be to cut the high turnover rate among guards, which has continued despite recent improvements in pay and benefits. Officials at the Florida Department of Corrections said they had a 24% employee vacancy rate statewide last fall, with about 4,000 positions unfilled. In other words, nearly one out of every four positions wasn’t filled. That’s no way to run a prison system.

In their defense, corrections officials note that all Florida prisons are audited regularly and comply with standards set by the American Correctional Association regarding ventilation and HVAC systems. And they say many housing units without air conditioning have other ways to mitigate heat, including fans, exhaust systems and water fountains with cold water.

That’s better than nothing, but such responses show the officials are all too aware that improving prison conditions is not a winning issue politically. And they know the law is on their side. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1981 that the U.S. Constitution “does not mandate comfortable prisons.”

But it’s also clear the situation will only get worse if nothing is done. Climate change isn’t going to magically disappear, nor is Florida magically going to be cool in the summers. And while it’s encouraging that lawmakers are finally acknowledging the impact of high temperatures on Florida prisons, we’re still waiting for them to actually do something substantial about it.

Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, Sherri Day, Sebastian Dortch, John Hill, Jim Verhulst and Chairman and CEO Conan Gallaty. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.

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