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As heat rises, inmates and staff swelter in Mississippi’s prisons

As of Friday, five of the six locations where Mississippi’s prisons are located are under a National Weather Service heat advisory.

And the Mississippi Department of Corrections has no clear timeline as to when it will install air conditioning to bring relief to inmates and staff.

“We are continuing to explore our options to provide air conditioning where possible; however, there is no timetable for that installation at this time,” MDOC spokesperson Kate Head wrote in an email. 

One woman incarcerated at the women’s prison at the Central Mississippi Correctional Facility in Pearl said relief from the heat is hard to come by and the temperatures inside are worse than outside without any shade or trees. The woman asked not to be named for fear of retaliation. 

“It’s actually worse (in) here,” she said Tuesday. “The heat just hits you in the face.” 

The heat index, also known as what temperature feels like on the body, takes into account humidity and air temperature. Friday’s advisory was said to expect index temperatures up to 110.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, people who are at an increased risk of heat-related illnesses include those without access to air conditioning, those over the age of 65 and people with chronic conditions – populations that include incarcerated people. 

Last year was the incarcerated woman’s first summer at the prison, and she witnessed people pass out or experience seizures because of the heat. 

Head, the MDOC spokesperson, wrote in an email that the department is taking steps to mitigate the heat by providing incarcerated people with water, ice and fans. 

Some men incarcerated in Parchman’s Unit 29, which doesn’t have air conditioning, secure 8-inch fans purchased from the commissary to the bars of their cells and place their mattress on the floor beneath the fan, to try to deal with the summer heat.
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Some men incarcerated in Parchman’s Unit 29, which doesn’t have air conditioning, secure 8-inch fans purchased from the commissary to the bars of their cells and place their mattress on the floor beneath the fan, to try to deal with the summer heat. Credit: Courtesy of Hope Dealers Prison Reform of Mississippi.

This is similar to what has been done in previous years, but some incarcerated people have said that distribution of ice isn’t always regular or enough to support hundreds of people and that fans move hot air around. MDOC did not respond to these concerns Friday. 

Air conditioning installation has been completed at the women’s prison at CMCF in the church, school and dining areas, the incarcerated woman said. Several weeks ago it was completed in her housing zone, she said, but the AC there has not been turned on. 

Tuesday evening, the prison superintendent visited the building where the incarcerated woman lives and told residents the air conditioning would not be turned on for the foreseeable future because it requires a part that is on backorder, the woman said. 

The woman has also seen how three emotional support dogs trained by seminary students are moved to air conditioned areas and provided pools of water to stay cool. She doesn’t understand how the animals get access to the relief but she and the other women don’t. 

In this March 20, 2019, photo, a watch tower stands high on the grounds of the Central Mississippi Correctional Facility in Pearl, Miss. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)
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In this March 20, 2019, photo, a watch tower stands high on the grounds of the Central Mississippi Correctional Facility in Pearl, Miss. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

“We get the short end of the stick on everything,” she said, in reference to how the men at CMCF already have AC and the dogs in the women’s prison get access to it. 

MDOC did not respond to questions about the air conditioning and the dogs’ access to it.  

Last year as air conditioning was installed at three-fourths of the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman, Commissioner Burl Cain estimated that by sometime in 2025, AC would be coming Parchman’s Unit 29, South Mississippi Correctional Institute in Leakesville and other facilities, so long as funding was available to support those upgrades. 

“It just takes a good while to get it all done,” he said in an April 2023 interview with Missisisppi Today. “That’s just the way the funding is.” 

At Parchman, the heat index was above 130 degrees –  within the extreme danger category where a person’s risk of heat-related illness is likely – for 25 of the past 72 hours, according to the National Weather Service records. 

On four separate instances Wednesday afternoon, the heat index reached 185 at Parchman, according to weather data. 

Pictures from Parchman’s Unit 29, which doesn’t have air conditioning, shows how men have secured 8-inch fans purchased from the commissary to the bars of their cells and placed their mattress on the floor beneath the fan, which some have told advocates is how they get relief from the heat. 

The majority of Parchman has had air conditioning since last summer, but Unit 29 is part of the group of prisons that are expected to get AC sometime in the future. 

At all prisons, an 8-inch fan is available to buy from the commissary for $29.95, which is among one of the most expensive on the prison’s commissary list compiled by The Appeal

Even if an incarcerated person has a job, Mississippi prison industry jobs can pay between 20 cents and $1.30 an hour, which falls within an estimated national average calculated by the Prison Policy Initiative. The group also estimated regular prison jobs nationwide have an estimated range of 14 cents and 63 cents an hour. 

Privately operated Eastern Mississippi Correctional Facility has AC including in its housing units, but family members told advocates that since the end of May, the air conditioning has not been functional. 

The maximum daily temperatures in Meridian, where the prison is located, have been above 90 degrees since the end of May, according to the National Weather Service. 

Meridian is also under a heat advisory, and within the past three days, the highest heat index was 107 degrees – 95 degrees at 75% humidity, which is in the danger category for heat-related illnesses. 

Management and Training Corp. spokesperson Emily Lawhead said technicians have diagnosed problems with air conditioning units and will install new units when they arrive. 

“We’re working hard to get all AC units back online as soon as possible,” she wrote in an email. 

In the meantime, Lawson said cold water and fans are available, and Gatorade is provided to staff and incarcerated people for them to stay hydrated. Swamp coolers are cooling the air in areas where AC units are waiting to be repaired, she said Friday. 

Heat in prison is a national issue that Families Against Mandatory Minimums, which represents incarcerated people and their families, and One Voice United, a group representing corrections staff, have teamed up to address. 

The Safer Prisons, Safer Communities campaign is highlighting a nationwide crisis through overcrowding, understaffing and deteriorating conditions that make prisons unconducive to rehabilitation and create poor conditions for incarcerated people, prison staff, families and communities. 

Andy Potter, executive director of One Voice United and a former Michigan corrections officer, recognizes prison infrastructure can be old and it can be expensive to install air conditioning.

But he said it’s not enough for incarcerated people and the corrections staff to rely on fans, water bottles and Gatorade to stay cool. The incarcerated and staff do not have the freedom or ability to seek relief in a similar way as those not in a prison system can do, Potter said. 

Daniel Landsman, vice president of policy for FAMM, said air conditioning can help decrease incidents of violence and fatalities, which research has found increases with heat. 

“Heat is just going to make all the things we are experiencing in our prison system worse,” he said. 

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