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Earlier this year, a prisoner with severe mental illness died in an overheated cell at Rikers Island, the largest jail in New York City. When he was found, the temperature in his cell was at least 100 degrees - the exact cause of his death is still under investigation. But Alisa Roth reports the case is renewing attention to a long-standing problem in jails and prisons.
ALISA ROTH, BYLINE: Dr. Susi Vassallo grew up in Texas. So she's not afraid of heat. But she still remembers her reaction when she stood in an un-air-conditioned prison cell one summer.
SUSI VASSALLO: When you closed the doors. they had just little dots in them, which provided any ventilation from the outside. Even after five minutes, it was absolutely stifling, it was inconceivable to live there 23 hours a day, day after day.
ROTH: Vassallo is a physician and professor at NYU's medical school. And an expert on heat-related illnesses. Who's often called to testify in lawsuits about temperatures in jails and prisons. She says for most people those conditions are uncomfortable. But for some people, they're actually dangerous because health conditions or medications they take make them more sensitive.
VASSALLO: Specific conditions, such as mental illness or high blood pressure or diabetes, we think of those conditions and the medications used to treat as rendering those people more, more susceptible to heat.
ROTH: Prisoners' rights lawyers - and others - have been arguing, literally for decades about what constitutes a reasonable temperature. But the issue has taken on more urgency, because the populations of both elderly and mentally ill prisoners have been growing.
One of those lawyers is Mercedes Montagnes. She says prisoners have a right to certain things.
MERCEDES MONTAGNES: Food, access to drinking water, a roof over their heads, medical care.
ROTH: And, she argues, reasonable temperatures. She filed a lawsuit last year demanding that the heat index equal a calculation of heat and humidity - on Louisiana's death row not go above 88 degrees.
She knows plenty of people outside prison don't have air conditioning. But, unlike prisoners, they have the freedom to do something about it:
MONTAGNES: Of course those individuals have the ability to go to a freezer, to get cold water, to go to a mall, to go to a movie theater
ROTH: And the argument for air conditioning prisons has found allies in some unlikely places. Last year, a group of prison guards from Texas joined a lawsuit against the state’s Department of Corrections.
LANCE LOWRY: The officers are required to enter housing areas and work in housing areas where the inmates are housed and are exposed to this constant bombardment of heat.
ROTH: Lance Lowry is a former prison guard in Texas. Who now works with the guards' union. He says guards have many of the same health conditions as prisoners - obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure. Even mental illness.
LOWRY: Officers frequently suffer from heat cramps and a lot of heat illnesses.
ROTH: He says prisoners are harder to manage in the heat. There are more fights and more psychiatric emergencies. Texas is among several states facing lawsuits over temperatures in its correctional facilities. And because of the ongoing litigation it wouldn't talk on the record. But in a statement, the corrections department said it tries to mitigate the high temperatures. Keith Price is a professor of criminology and sociology at West Texas A and M. And a former Texas warden. He says prison is not a five-star hotel, and prisoners need to acknowledge that.
KEITH PRICE: You know, they don't get to go get a cheeseburger whenever they want to, either. So I mean you know there's a certain amount of things that you give up when you become incarcerated.
ROTH: On the other hand, he says, it's important to accommodate prisoners who are heat-sensitive. The challenge is it is hard to know exactly how many prisoners are living in what we considered overheated conditions. But for example lawyers say that if the more than 150,000 prisons beds in Texas, only around 550 are climate controlled. For NPR News, I'm Alisa Roth in New York.
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