If You Can’t Stand the Heat

The expression was popularized by US President Harry S Truman to tell someone that if they cannot deal with a difficult situation, they should leave that situation.  Somewhat insulting, it implies that the person addressed cannot tolerate pressure and that they should leave others to deal with it rather than complaining.

While on parole I worked in a commercial kitchen.  I started out as a dishwasher and moved up to be a prep cook.  I can tell you that the kitchen is an extremely hot place to work, especially in the summer.  Hot stoves, ovens, deep fryers, and dishwashers coupled with limited staffing, space & time, and combined with high output workloads during meal service creates an incredibly stressful situation that few people can thrive in.  At times it felt like it was an episode of Hell’s Kitchen with Gordon Ramsay berating young inexperienced cooks competing for an opportunity to work in one of his restaurants.  High pressure and high stakes, no room for error and no tolerance for the smallest infraction of the rules.  Either you learn the most efficient and food-safe method of completing your tasks or risk falling behind and poisoning someone.  There were days when I didn’t think I was going to make it, but every day I kept showing up and gradually I got stronger, smarter, and wiser.  Unfortunately, working in a commercial kitchen doesn’t pay very well, the hours can be somewhat erratic, and holidays tend to be worked and not celebrate.  I look back on my time in the kitchen and appreciate the things I learned that made me a better cook at home.  I miss some of my coworkers and how well I ate.  I don’t miss the heat, the stress, or the hours.

As I write this article, we are amid a week of 90-degree days and I’m thankful for air conditioning, ice cubes and shade that keeps me calm, cool, and collected.  However, most prison housing units in America don’t have air conditioning or even adequate ventilation.  The driving factor in prison design is control, not comfort.  In some places millage’s to build new jails specifically stated that air conditioning was not included as a way of gaining votes from people who think that inmates don’t deserve it.  There is a mentality that says that if some people in the general public can’t afford air conditioning then prisoners don’t deserve this luxury. 

True the electrical expense associated with cooling large buildings can be expensive, but this way of thinking fails to see the whole picture.  To prevent being an easy means of escape many windows in correctional facilities don’t open and the ones that do are either too small to allow an average sized inmate from climbing thru or have some type of grated cover on the outside.  This significantly limits the access to fresh air inside or the ability to create cross ventilation or breezes.  Some places compensate by adding commercial sized exhaust fans, ceiling fans, or personal fans to create any air movement.  But by and large these in my experience had little effect in hot weather.  In the Level I pole barns where I stayed the exhaust fans created such a significant amount of negative pressure that it required a lot of effort to open the exit door, even when all the windows in the unit were open.

Iowa inmates endure summer heat as lawmakers put off prison repairs

Headline of a July 2020 Iowa Capital Dispatch article by Linh Ta

The primary construction materials for prisons are brick and steel.  These tend to absorb and retain heat in the summer adding to the building heat load.  Many prison buildings are over 35 years old, have poor insulation and lack thermal pane windows.  I have written previously about how cold it got in my county jail cell with not just frost but ice forming on the inside of the window.  Given their inability to heat the cells in the winter in the medical wing, how could they possibly cool them in the summer?  Quarantine in the MDOC utilizes part of the old walled Jackson prison complex.  Those housing units have 4 galleries of cells facing large windows many with broken or missing panes that let in plenty of light, bugs, weather, etc.  They also do little to regulate the heat or cold since they are made of individually glazed divided light single pane glass which comprise roughly 50 percent of the exterior wall.

In many parts of the country including Michigan, climate change has resulted in longer hotter summers that were not a consideration when many prison buildings were designed.  I recently read the account of a man who spent nearly 35 years in a north Texas prison.  He recalls how during the winter there was occasionally snow on the surrounding fields and that summer had relatively few days where the temperatures went above 90 degrees.  However, over time the winters got warmer and the summer heat lasted much longer.  The change in weather resulting in unbearable living conditions.  In fact, there have been several lawsuits brought against various states and the federal prison system claiming that the lack of air conditioning is cruel and unusual punishment. 

Inmates who are elderly, have medical conditions or take medication that place them at elevated risk for heat related illness are particularly likely to have serious and sometimes fatal reactions to building temperatures that can remain 10-15 degrees higher than the nighttime low.  The thermometer in one of my housing units would still be in the upper 80s at 11PM on summer nights after the daytime temperature soared into the 90s.  It could stay like this for several weeks at a time during July and August.    Like most lawsuits brought by inmates they have a difficult time prevailing in the courts and when they do the gains are either short lived when overturned on appeal or simply ignored by the prison administrators without some form of judicial oversight.  An aging prison population with a disproportionate number of inmates with chronic health conditions was also never factored into the building design.

How Global Warming Makes Overcrowded Prisons Even More Dangerous

Headline of a Bloomberg City Lab article written by Brentin Mock in September 2015.

Even as evidence of climate change mounts, little is done to address the problem except when the corrections officer’s union gets involved because it’s not just the inmates that contend with the heat but anyone who has to work in buildings without the benefit of air conditioning.  In Michigan prisons the administration, school, medical buildings, and the chow hall generally had air conditioning.  It was the housing units that were unconditioned, except for the housing unit counselor’s office.  One of the perks of my job as a tutor was spending seven hours a day in the school, where it was relatively cool.  I dreaded going back to the housing unit to endure the stifling hot air that left the aftertaste of BO in your mouth.

In 2008 Lakeland and Florence Crane correctional facilities partnered with Refurbished Pets of Southern Michigan (RPSM) to form a prisoner/dog foster care and training program.

It was difficult to imagine that due to the efforts of the Humane Society, dog pounds and many livestock barns are air conditioned while prisons are not.  I’m all for treating animals humanely but the very term involves the concept of treating other species in ways that we would treat people.  Yet the concept of humane treatment for prisoners doesn’t rise to that same level.  I wonder if the Humane Society realizes that all the Leader Dog for the Blind and Service Dog training programs that are being run in prisons expose the dogs to inhumane living conditions.  Also, there is irony in that prisons are a great place to socialize dogs but do little to socialize the inmates.

In many communities there are cooling centers set up to accommodate people who don’t have access to air conditioning during heat waves.  Libraries and community centers welcome people to come in and cool off.  In prisons there are also cooling centers of a sort.  Places like the chow hall are opened to those who have a potential to suffer from heat related illness to go and cool off.  This is only during times when the chow hall isn’t serving food and the inmates aren’t allowed to bring anything with them to occupy their time.  No playing cards or books, they can only sit quietly at the tables.  They are not free to come and go but must remain there until dismissed back to their housing units.  During the current Covid-19 pandemic many prisons aren’t running regular chow hall schedules to accommodate a limited form of social distancing, so using them as cooling centers may not be an option this year.  I’m not certain but using the visiting room might be an option at some facilities since visits are currently banned.

I have written previously about the relationship between the hot summer months and the increase in violence and suicides.  Hot weather brings out the worst in people and when the worst of the worst are forced to live in hot cramped living conditions things only get ugly.  You’d think from a security perspective the administration would want to keep the violence to a minimum and reduce the number of suicide attempts, however it doesn’t appear that this type of rational thinking applies. 

Hot and bothered: Experts say violent crime rises with the heat

Headline of a July 2012 CBS News article by Julia Dahl

It ultimately boils down to how inmates are viewed by not just corrections staff, but by the governor, legislature, and the general public.  Are inmates to be considered as people with certain human rights that the rest of society takes for granted or are, they somehow disqualified by virtue of their behavior which was deemed as inappropriate?  There seems be a dichotomy where inmates are expected to rehabilitate themselves, yet they are treated as being unredeemable.  We sentence people to serve time for their crimes in places that are as dystopian as Mad Max’s Thunderdome and then expect them to reintegrate back into society after their release. 

Summer Heat Kills Inmates in Prisons, and That Needs to Change

Headline of a Huffington Post August 2014 article written by Ariel Dulitzky, Director of the Human Rights Clinic at The University of Texas School of Law

When inmates who are not serving life sentences die in prison, it is common to say that they weren’t given life sentences and shouldn’t have had to die there, which is ridiculously obvious.  But the system as it is currently operated doesn’t allow for different standards for inmate care based on their sentences.  Medical care is like that of third world countries where there are many needless deaths and pointless suffering.  In Michigan for example there is no early release program to reward prisoners for good behavior due to the Truth in Sentencing provisions of the Michigan constitution.  Compassionate release programs also don’t have much compassion since most who apply are denied or the considerations are so deliberately slow that the petitioner dies while waiting for an answer.  Much of this boils down to a lack of political will, indifference, and outright animosity toward those assigned to their care.  So why should something like air conditioning receive any consideration?  Because when you can’t get out of the kitchen there isn’t another option.


I first started to write this post in late June/early July when the summer heat was at its worst and the USA was just starting to venture outdoors after a prolonged period of quarantine.  My job had just called me back to work and I went from having too much time on my hands to working seven days a week.  In fact, my company had placed me into a machine shop where the indoor temperature was routinely in the mid to upper 90s.  While it was hot and uncomfortable at work, when I got into my car to go home, I could turn on the air conditioning.  It reminded me of how hot and uncomfortable it can get in prison and that for those incarcerated there is no break from the heat.  Now that it’s almost spring it may seem out of place, but it is still truth and is something worth blogging about since it will repeat itself in a few months.

This blog is an example of how I could feel that what I had to say might not be all that important at the time that I was writing it.  The first outbreaks of Coronavirus that triggered lockdowns in the spring seemed to be easing but by the time I was ready to post this essay cases were on the rise and only accelerated into the fall and winter.  I was stunned as I watched infection rates and deaths spiral out of control.  Prisons and jails were locked down and conditions only got worse for those trapped inside.  It felt trivial and insignificant to write about the heat, but I am certain in the context of the pandemic that the summer heat did add to the misery index.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.