Tue. Dec 11th, 2018

The Heat is On! Florida Prisoners Receive No Protection From Deadly Heat

by Kevin “Rashid” Johnson

In the Heat of the Moment

 On June 22, 2017 I was transferred from the Texas Department of Criminal (In)Justice (TDCJ) to the Florida Department of Corruption (FDOC).  I was initially confined at the Reception and Medical center (RMC), which houses and treats Florida’s most medically vulnerable and chronically ill prisoners.

 One of Florida’s most flagrantly inhumane conditions of confinement that immediately struck me was, despite the sweltering heat, its prisons do not have air-conditioning not even in its medical facility.  Nor are Florida prisoners allowed to have in-cell fans.  Worse still, all prisoners are strictly required to remain fully dressed (in underclothes, shirt, pants, socks and shoes) during daytime hours while locked inside the cells, often with cellmates.  And this while the heat index is routinely above 100°F.

Health Needs Notwithstanding

 At RMC I immediately experienced the inherent and obvious danger of these conditions.  As a man with chronic hypertension for which I am prescribed several medications, I am particularly vulnerable to extreme heat, and in the span of just 3 weeks while at RMC I fell unconscious twice because of the effects of the extreme heat on my medical condition.  Which was made all the worse by the lack of air-conditioning, and no in-cell fans, cold water or any protections from the heat at RMC.

On one occasion I had to be rushed to and treated at RMC’s on-site emergency room, where although it was still early in the morning, two other hypertensive prisoners were also being treated for having fallen unconscious that morning from the in-cell heat.

I should add that not only do these conditions endanger the medically vulnerable but also the elderly.  Florida is acknowledged to have a particularly large and steadily growing elderly prisoner population due to extreme sentencing.

Officials Know the Dangers

And Florida officials at all levels know the deadly and illegal hazards of housing the infirm under such conditions in institutional settings.

Take for example the response to the incident of September 13, 2017 when eight elderly residents of Florida’s Hollywood Hills nursing home died (six more died later), from the heat when Hurricane Irma knocked out that the facility’s power and air-conditioning.

In response Florida officials to disciplinary actions against the facility, suspending its license, putting a moratorium on admissions, and instituting a January 2018 deadline for all Florida nursing homes to have air-conditioning with backup generators or face a $1000 a day fine.

Florida’s prisoners, however, including the many infirm among them, receive no official consideration at all. 

On July 19, 2017, United States District Judge Keith Ellison issued an emergency order to transfer some 1,000 medically vulnerable TDCJ prisoners to air-conditioned facilities, finding that housing them in extreme heat like in Florida’s prisons was illegal in outright barbaric. (1)

What’s more, the federal courts have long required that even healthy prisoners housed without air-conditioning must be allowed fans, cold water and daily showers whenever the heat index exceeds 90°F. (2) None of which is provided to Florida prisoners, including those in solitary confinement, who remain locked inside cells (many with cellmates) all day every day.

At RMC, and at Florida state prison (FSP), where I’ve been confined since July 14, 2017, the heat index remained above 100°F almost every day from June 22, 2017 through October.

As further proof of Florida’s officials’ knowing culpability for these deadly and illegal conditions, consider the admissions of a former FDOC warden Ron McAndrews.

August 17, 2017 the FDOC locked down all its prisons in response to an August 19 Washington D.C. march in support of prisoners’ rights and against slave labor in U.S. prisons.  Officials alleged the statewide lockdown was to forestall any potential reaction of prisoners to coincide with the march.

McAndrews spoke out in the media against the lockdown, specifically because of the extreme in-cell heat the prisoners would be forced to endure.

On August 17 the Miami Herald reported, “McAndrews said the lockdown isn’t going to prevent tension – and may exacerbate it.  Florida prisons do not have air conditioning, he pointed out.”

The report went on to quote McAndrews: “the summer it gets so damn hot he said imagine if you had to sleep in your bedroom or stay in your house, locked in without any air-conditioning – try it for one night.  You would not be able to sleep.” (3)

McAndrews was describing the torturous conditions prisoners would suffer if locked down in their cells for just a few days.  Again, what this overlooks is the FDOC already keeps thousands of prisoners locked down all the time (and many of them for years on end) in solitary confinement (euphemistically called Close Management, Administrative Confinement Disciplinary Confinement and Maximum Management).  In fact I have been I have been solitarily confined since being confined in the FDOC.  And as this former FDOC warden acknowledges, the heat is unbearable during the summer  – and autumn – months. 

It’s Deadly Abuse – Plain and Simple

The extreme heat is much the same as in Texas prisons, except prisoners in Texas may purchase in-cell fans from the prison commissaries, or if they cannot afford to purchase a fan one can be donated to them by prisoner advocacy groups like Texas CURE.  And as noted, the federal courts have required that medically vulnerable Texas prisoners be housed in air-conditioned facilities.

Moreover, in the TDCJ prisoners receive information packets, and video instructions and orientations explaining how to avoid, identify and obtain care for heat-related illnesses like heat exhaustion, heatstroke, etc.  The FDOC, however, provides no such considerations to its prisoners.  Indeed, also unlike Texas, Florida does not keep track of nor publicize heat-related prisoner deaths, to my knowledge.

But since I’ve been in Florida, I’ve encountered numerous prisoners who report having witnessed such deaths or personally suffering potentially fatal heat related conditions like heat exhaustion and strokes.  One prisoner, Cobra Newton, #389958, reported suffering two strokes.

FDOC officials quite deliberately cause their captives to suffer under extreme heat.  When I requested intervention from the doctor who treated me and RMC’s emergency room when I fell unconscious from the heat on July 12, 2017, I was told there was nothing he could do.  That, as I should have noticed, RMC was FDOC’s medical facility and even there prisoners were housed with no protection from the heat.

In so many words, one is left to suffer and die.  And with Global Warming, each year is getting hotter.

What few protections Texas affords its prisoners from the extreme heat is the result of outside protests, media exposure in numerous heat-related prisoner deaths and legal advocacy against the deadly heat in Texas prisons.

Florida conceals prisoner heat-related deaths and its prisoners have had no such outside support.  So we are made to suffer what cannot be denied is outright torture and deadly mistreatment.

Dare to struggle Dare to win!

All Power to the People!

____________________

Notes:

1. Keith Cole, et al. v. Bryan Collier, et al., US District Court (Southern District of Texas Houston Division) Civil Action no. 4:14– cv– 1698 (Document # 737).

2. Gates v. Cook, 376 F. 3d 323, 339– 40 (5th Cir. 2004).

3. Julie K. Brown, “Florida Prisons – All of Them – On Lockdown,” Miami Herald, August 17 2017.

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