Report: Extreme Heat Lethal to U.S. Prison Population

A recent report found extreme heat can be lethal for incarcerated people.

Connecticut and other Northeastern states experienced a 21% increase in deaths after two-day heat waves between 2001 and 2019. Southwestern states saw milder increases during the same period, and longer heat waves across the country are an increasing problem.

Mike Wessler, communications director for the Prison Policy Initiative, noted the country’s prison population is aging, and not as able to withstand the heat. He said alternatives to incarceration should be considered as a first step for reducing heat-related deaths in prisons.

“I think the first step is really, identify those folks who don’t need to be behind bars and find alternatives,” Wessler recommended. “If somebody commits a crime, putting them behind bars for years at a time in inhumane conditions is not the only way you can rectify them. There’s a lot of other methods for resolving those issues.”

Additionally, he said new prisons should be built with air conditioning, access to showers and expanded access to other cooling options. Global temperatures have risen from 2013 to 2021, with each year being hotter than the last. Scientists at the World Meteorological Organization said this past July was the hottest month on record because of heat waves across North America, Europe and Asia.

Court cases have been brought forward about the lack of cooling conditions in times of excessive heat violating a person’s Eighth Amendment rights.

Wessler pointed out in spite of lawmakers knowing the steps to take, there are some challenges to ensuring such initiatives come to fruition.

“There’s a contingent of folks who kind of believe if you have committed a crime, you just have to deal with whatever conditions come your way,” Wessler explained. “I think that is not something that most people agree with. I think most people agree that if you commit a crime and are incarcerated, you still have your basic humanity, and you still have a right to a safe prison facility.”

Since the industrial age began, Connecticut’s average annual air temperature has risen 2.2 degrees. While it may not seem like much, it can spell the difference between freezing and nonfreezing temperatures.

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