‘We’ve got hell coming’: Missourians in state prisons fear consequences of summertime heat

As heat waves sweep across the Midwest, incarcerated people in Missouri are increasingly afraid of the rising temperatures inside prisons.

They live in concrete buildings that retain heat. People share close quarters, making cooling all the more difficult. As Earth’s temperatures reach their hottest recorded numbers this summer, people incarcerated in Missouri’s prisons describe conditions as similar to a pizza oven, or like “swimming in a cloud” of humidity.

In 2019, the Prison Policy Initiative put Missouri on a list of “famously hot states” that lack universal air conditioning in prisons. (Kansas is also on the list.)

The Missouri Department of Corrections (DOC) says 10 of the state’s 20 prisons are fully air conditioned. Three buildings have no air conditioning in living areas, but it can be accessed in other parts of the buildings. Four other buildings are partially air conditioned for some living areas.

People inside the prisons, though, say the picture isn’t so clear. What the DOC says is air conditioning feels like warm air to the incarcerated people who spoke with The Beacon.

Gerald Boyer is serving his sixth year in Missouri prisons at Missouri Eastern Correctional Center in Pacific, Missouri, which does not have air conditioning. Boyer expects to be released within the next year. He has some health issues and takes medicine, so he was ordered to use a bottom bunk to help him stay cool. He’s thankful he doesn’t have to sleep on the upper bunk.

“I can’t sleep. I’ve never slept all night this summer,” Boyer said. “I imagine being on the top bunk, it’s gotta be five or 10 degrees hotter up there.”

The DOC says it has no plans to add air conditioning at the place where Boyer is held, because air ducts were not included when the prison was built.

Boyer said the building has such high humidity and such poor air circulation that when he takes a shower to cool off he feels like he’s walking into a cloud when he gets out.

“I’ll go take a shower in the evening and because of the lack of ventilation in the bathroom, there’s so much steam in the shower area that once you get out of the shower and dry off, you’re literally dripping immediately, because you’re sweating again,” he said.

“The humidity in here is the same as it is outside. If it’s 90% humidity outside, you’re swimming in a cloud inside.”

Another person at the same facility, who asked to be identified by his initials, J.C., because he said he experienced retaliation the last time he spoke out about prison conditions, described the place as a pizza oven, saying it’s at least 20 degrees warmer inside than it is outside.

“Think of a pizza oven. It’s brick. It stays that temperature, retains that heat,” he said.

J.C. said he was thankful that temperatures had been moderate this year up until recently. “We’ve been blessed by God’s grace,” he said. “But we’ve got hell coming.”

“It hasn’t killed me yet,” he added. “But it might have if I were in my 70s or 80s.”

J.C. said his mom visits him frequently during the summer so he can go to the visitors center, which has air conditioning. Areas where employees gather, such as case managers’ offices and the medical center, are also cooled, he said. In fact, J.C. said, those places are so well chilled that he needs a jacket or extra layers while there.

“If they were to take that air that they have in those three sections of the house and divide it evenly among the housing units, we would be great,” he said.

Without air conditioning, limited options for cooling down

Missouri has tried to provide some relief inside its buildings by distributing ice and personal fans, restricting recreational time and allowing increased access to showers. But people living in the heat for prolonged periods say those mitigation methods do little to keep them cool.

DOC spokesperson Karen Pojmann, who responded to questions from The Beacon by email, said ice is distributed at corrections facilities three times a day. Boyer said that’s typical in the winter. But he and J.C. both told The Beacon that lately they’ve received ice only twice a day, at about 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. Boyer said staffers have told him the ice machines are overworked.

Those who are incarcerated can buy a fan from the prison commissary for $20 plus tax, or ask to be put on a “fan plan,” to receive a fan and pay it off over time. Those who don’t work or can’t because of physical limitations have few options for earning money to get a fan without help from family or friends. One person incarcerated at Southeast Correctional Center, who asked to remain anonymous over fear of retaliation, said he submitted his paperwork for the fan plan two weeks ago and still hasn’t received one.

Southeast, in Charleston, Missouri, is one of the prisons that the Department of Corrections says is fully air conditioned, even in the living areas. The person who shared his experience with The Beacon said that those in their cellblock have spent two months complaining about the warm air coming out of their vents. They were told maintenance would be coming to fix the issue, but there have been no signs of improvement.

“There’s several people that are constantly telling the correctional officers to go inside our cells so they can see how it is,” he said. “There’s two inmates here who have had their families calling Jeff City.”

The presence of air conditioning in state prisons isn’t entirely decided by the Department of Corrections. Legislators need to allocate the necessary funding in the state budget. For the 2024 fiscal year, lawmakers approved funding to install air conditioning at Fulton Reception and Diagnostic Center. That project is expected to be completed by next summer, according to Pojmann. There is no immediate plan to add air conditioning to other facilities.

Lori Curry, the executive director of the advocacy group Missouri Prison Reform, said the group sent out a call to action to lawmakers, requesting that they visit a facility with no air conditioning and eat a meal there.

As far as she knows, only one lawmaker took up the invitation. A few others unsubscribed from the group’s email list.

The public health implications of prolonged heat exposure

Prolonged exposure to intense heat is known to have a number of harmful health effects, including increased likelihood of heatstroke. And prison populations are especially at risk, said J. Carlee Purdum, an assistant research professor at the Hazard Reduction and Recovery Center at Texas A&M University. Her work centers on how natural disasters and climate change impact the incarcerated population and public health.

“Incarcerated people are more vulnerable than other populations because they are overrepresenting communities that already have diminished access to quality health care,” Purdum said. “And then on top of that, you have an aging population with high rates of chronic illness, and you’re putting them in extreme temperatures. It’s an extremely vulnerable population that’s experiencing those conditions.”

Like Gerald Boyer at Missouri Eastern Correctional Center, many incarcerated people with health conditions take medicine. According to Purdum, many forms of prescription medication can cause negative effects if someone is exposed to the heat for long periods of time.

“One of the key issues is that often people are prescribed medication that can inhibit the body’s ability to regulate temperatures,” Purdum said. “Psychotropic medications, other medications can do that. So people have to choose between taking medications that have been prescribed for their physical health or mental health and surviving the heat.”

James Harvey, who is incarcerated at Moberly Correctional Center, said he came to Missouri prisons from Illinois. Over the years he’s been incarcerated, he’s seen cooling conditions deteriorate.

“We do have big fans on top of the building. They’re supposed to suck the hot air out. My understanding was that those were turned off years and years ago,” Harvey said. “I’ve heard some other inmates say that they have downsized everything, including fans. I came here a year ago from another facility I was at for 12 years. The heat was shocking.”

J.C., at MECC, was once on a committee for restorative justice inside his facility. He said at one point the committee pushed for incarcerated people to have small air conditioning units that would actually blow cold air.

“They were absolutely against that,” he said. He added he’s seen fan sizes become smaller and coolers meant to hold ice become less resilient.

Some public health research has found that fans aren’t the answer in conditions of extreme heat. According to public health guidelines published by the EPA and updated in 2016, the use of fans could actually increase the risk of heatstroke in the event of excessive temperatures.

“Because of the limitations of conduction and convection, using a portable electric fan alone when heat index temperatures exceed 99°F actually increases the heat stress the body must respond to by blowing air that is warmer than the ideal body temperature over the skin surface,” according to the Excessive Heat Events Guidebook. “The increased circulation of hot air and increased sweat evaporation can speed the onset of heat-attributable conditions.”

According to the Department of Corrections, no heat-related medical incidences or hospitalizations were recorded in Missouri last year. But according to recent data analyzed by the Prison Policy Initiative, heart disease-related deaths in U.S. prisons increased by 6.7% for every 10 degrees above the average summer temperature. After a three-day heat wave, deaths by suicide increased by 15% and heart disease-related deaths increased by 7.6%.

Heat-related health risks should concern the broader public, Purdum said. Spending on health care inside prisons is rising as the population gets older and requires more medical care. And once people leave prison, those new health conditions could make it more difficult for them to reintegrate into society.

“For people who are concerned about putting more resources into prisons, when we talk about the cost of not doing it — you have a skyrocketing cost of medical care for incarcerated people, have enormous turnover among staff, because it’s difficult to recruit and retain people when the conditions are so challenging,” Purdum said. “Experiencing that environment year after year, it does have a significant effect on people’s health over time.”

This article was initially published in The Kansas City Beacon, an online news outlet focused on local, in-depth journalism in the public interest. 

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