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As Temperature Drops, Incarcerated People Brace for Dangerously Cold Conditions

For the millions of people incarcerated in the U.S., freezing temperatures amid failing infrastructure can be deadly.

Part of the Series

“The cells don’t have any heat. So, they’re sleeping with their clothes on,” a woman named Regina told Truthout of her son’s experience in Hill Correctional Center in Illinois in early December. “They’re not heating the tiers. There’s no heat in the day room. There’s no heat outside the showers.… The water is cold. You can let it run for a little while and you may get a little warm. But it’s not enough.”

Regina has felt the cold in the prison firsthand. “It’s even cold in the visitor’s room,” she said. “I don’t have any hair right now, because I have cancer. So, I wear a head wrap or a hat, but I can’t wear it in there. Because you can’t have anything on your head.” She wrote three letters to the warden requesting a medical exemption, but never heard back. “So, I go in there with nothing on my head,” she said. “My head is freezing. But I want to see my son.”

As people across the country brace for upcoming cold weather, many of those set to suffer the most are incarcerated in prisons and jails. Each winter, people in old, drafty facilities shiver for months in their cells, struggling to function and fearing for their health. They have no control over cell temperature, and often little access to warm clothes or extra blankets. Inevitably, some outdated heating systems across the country will fail, leaving people in dangerously frigid temperatures.

“This speaks to a much larger issue of the infrastructure, in general, of our prisons,” Jennifer Vollen-Katz, executive director of the John Howard Association (JHA), an Illinois-based citizen correctional oversight organization, told Truthout. “In Illinois, we have many really old, decrepit facilities that are unsafe, and frankly, unfit for human habitation.”

Both JHA and the Chicago-based Uptown People’s Law Center (UPLC) receive letters every winter from people incarcerated in dangerously cold prisons in Illinois. UPLC Executive Director Alan Mills told Truthout that complaints come most frequently from the state’s three maximum-security prisons, the newest of which was built in the 1920s. “They are long past their design life,” he explained. “These are 100-year-old buildings, which have been heavily and hard used, and not maintained.… They haven’t had an HVAC system that works, in any sort of modern sense, installed in any of these prisons. So, it’s too hot in the summer and too cold in the winter.”

Mills said old heating systems are susceptible to breakdowns, which can leave people without heat for days or weeks. “It’s not like you can go to your neighborhood Home Depot and pick up a piece of hardware to heat a huge, old building like this. They’re complicated to buy and manufacture, and they only come from one place.”

Cold conditions are worsened by policies in Illinois and other states that ban family members from sending packages to their loved ones. The only way to obtain additional blankets, sweatshirts, and other supplies beyond the bare minimum supplied by the prison is to purchase them from the commissary, an overpriced and often understocked prison store.

As climate change results in increasingly hot summers, hunger strikes and lawsuits have drawn attention to the deadly heat and lack of air conditioning in many prisons. Just this past November, an article in Environmental Health calculated for the first time that 13 percent of deaths in Texas prisons during warm months can be attributed to extreme heat.

But cold can be deadly too. On Christmas morning 2003, Charles Platcher froze to death in a cell in Illinois’s Menard Correctional Center — which opened in 1878 and is one of the three maximum-security prisons Mills said he frequently hears complaints from. Platcher was on suicide watch, with his regular clothes confiscated, when the heat went out in his unit overnight. Regina’s son spent years in Menard before being transferred to his current facility. “That place is a hellhole,” she said. “Plain and simple as that.”

More recently, Jamal Crummel had hypothermia when he died last January in Dauphin County Prison, a jail serving the Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, area. Days before his death, another man in the jail told his mother that his cell was so cold, ice formed on the inside of the window, and that people incarcerated on his “ice cold” unit spent their days huddled in blankets in their cells, while officers walked the floor in winter coats.

People incarcerated in another Pennsylvania jail have already faced similar conditions this year. “We have to wear double clothing to keep warm, especially in the cell,” stated a November letter addressed to the Abolitionist Law Center and signed “from all of us on [unit] 3B” in Allegheny County Jail in Pittsburgh. The writers noted that in some cells on their unheated unit, “you can actually see your own breath. People are walking around shivering and it’s causing people to be out of character and irritable and also cause health concerns.”

Unit 3B’s suffering echoes pleas heard from jails and prisons around the country, year after year.

“We have no heat in our cells,” a desperate man wrote last January from his unit in Green Rock Correctional Center in Virginia, in a letter that was shared with Truthout. “The vents don’t work at all so the walls are sweating and our beds, clothes, and personal property is wet. We literally have water puddled up in our floors with water running down the walls.… The moisture could make us sick or damage our electronics and personal items. It’s really bad.”

After multiple people on the unit filed official grievances with the prison, documenting the broken heater and water, “they locked us down and are only letting us shower every three days,” he wrote. “They punished us for grieving this issue.”

In January 2019, people incarcerated in the Metropolitan Detention Center, a federal jail in Brooklyn, pounded on the windows pleading for help when the facility’s heat and electricity went out for a week, leaving more than 1,600 incarcerated people shivering in their dark cells.

That same year, people incarcerated in Montana State Prison and their relatives alerted the Montana American Civil Liberties Union that heat wasn’t functioning in some parts of the facility. “There are guys that are freezing all night long, praying for daylight so they can get access to some warmth,” one family member told KPAX. “And I don’t care what you did, if you’re incarcerated, you’ve got the right to be treated like a human.”

In a lawsuit, women incarcerated in Wyoming alleged, among many other complaints, that when the prison’s heating system failed in December 2017, they suffered in the cold for at least a week, and were ordered to move their mattresses close together in common areas to stay warmer at night. One woman compared the situation to cattle huddling together outside for warmth.

“I spent my time at Mason wrapped in a blanket,” Tracy Meadows wrote of his incarceration in a Tennessee prison in an essay for The Marshall Project. “Most everyone stayed covered in their own blankets, which weren’t much heftier than a sheet but were the only means of staying warm allowed a prisoner. Reading, playing games, eating, watching TV — all done hunched in blankets. Guards wore coats; prisoners wore blankets. Guards were warm; prisoners were cold.”

Dangerously cold temperatures can also plague people incarcerated in southern states, which are often less prepared to respond to the cold. In 2018, the Texas Inmate Families Association gathered information from families around the state, determining that at least 30 Texas prisons had heating issues during a cold snap that year. Subsequent winter storms in Texas have led to terrifying and unsanitary conditions in prisons and jails.

In some cases, people report cold temperatures being used for retaliation and punishment.

In an ongoing lawsuit over conditions at David Wade Correctional Center in Louisiana, 11 incarcerated people alleged that correctional staff intentionally left windows open in the winter of 2017 and 2018, including on a night when temperatures reached a low of 14 degrees Fahrenheit. The complaint alleges: “The use of extreme cold to punish behavior on the tier is not a single isolated incident and occurs so frequently that prisoners have a word for it, ‘bluesing’ or ‘getting bluesed.’”

People incarcerated in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention facilities have made similar claims of retaliation, including in facilities that hold children. Last year, Ubaldo Ochoa Lopez, a father incarcerated in a Texas ICE processing center, told an advocate, “The officers are turning on fans to make it colder. If they’re hearing complaints like, ‘Oh it’s cold in here,’ they’ll be like, ‘It could be worse,’ and turn on fans.” He said staff also threw blankets in the garbage as retaliation.

And like Charles Platcher, who died of hypothermia on the floor of his Menard suicide watch cell, people housed in restrictive isolation or on suicide watch can be additionally susceptible to the cold. On suicide watch, people often lose access to blankets, clothes other than a paper gown, and anything else that could potentially be used to self-harm. The cold might also be felt particularly acutely and have additional health risks for the more than 10 percent of people in state prisons aged 55 and older. Yet another at-risk group are those on antipsychotic drugs, some of which cause a decreased ability to self-regulate body temperature, which can lead to hypothermia.

Advocates stress that extreme prison temperatures do not exist in a vacuum. Cold weather also introduces other issues, from rodents to a higher risk of catching COVID and other infectious diseases.

And unsafe temperatures are related to — and exacerbated by — problems like over-incarceration and overcrowding; a disregard for human rights behind bars; and a long-standing move toward more punitive, isolating housing.

“It’s really important to understand that the modifications that have been made [to old prisons] have generally made things worse,” Mills said. In Illinois’s older prisons, for example, cells were originally built with open bars on the front. The state has since replaced these with solid doors, which limit airflow and cause radiator heat to bypass lower-level cells as it rises.

“Most importantly, when they were designed, cells were meant for sleeping,” Mills said. “People were out of their cells all day long, either at work — forced work sometimes, or at the yard, or just playing cards out in the open area. And pretty much all that has been eliminated. So, people are now spending 20 to 23 hours a day in their cell, where they used to spend just eight hours sleeping.” In addition to the detrimental psychological, physical and neurological effects of being locked down in a cell day after day, this can mean more time spent on an icy tier.

When serving a prison sentence, “being denied your liberty is the punishment,” said Vollen-Katz. “There is no mandate, there’s nothing written into the law to require deprivation, and isolation, and extreme temperature experience, and all of the other really problematic physical conditions of being incarcerated.”

She said Illinois’s prison population has significantly decreased in recent years, from more than 49,000 people in 2015 to around 29,000 today. “Frankly, we can, and we should, be shutting down the worst prisons that are currently functioning right now,” she said. “There is an opportunity.”

Vollen-Katz noted that beyond violating the basic human dignity of incarcerated people, freezing and other inhumane prison conditions have consequences for all of society. “The vast majority — 97 percent — of people that go into prisons come back,” she said. “If we don’t give them treatment and programming, if we treat people horribly, if we put them in hideous living conditions, how do we expect them to go forward better than they were before? With increased trauma from really negative experiences that are going to be very difficult to overcome?”

“What keeps everybody safer?” she continued. “What helps society be more functional? It’s making sure that when people violate laws, we give them the tools they need to do better, not lock them in cages and treat them horribly.”

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