Prison reform activists demand A/C amid ‘sweltering heat’ within Florida state prisons

When the heat picks up in Florida, advocates and family members say temperatures can exceed 100°F inside, putting prisoners with medical issues like asthma at risk


By Amanda Rabines
Orlando Sentinel

ORLANDO, Fla. — On a hot Saturday morning, prison reform advocates and state leaders rallied at Lake Eola Park to bring attention to the thousands of prisoners in Florida who are spending record-breaking summer temperatures without access to air conditioning.

“What people want is simple: A country as great as its promise,” Maxwell Frost, a candidate for Florida’s 10th congressional district, said at the start of the rally. “No food, no visitations, no A/C. That’s not the promise of this country.”

Ruben Saldaña, a formerly incarcerated person who now serves as a mentor to Orlando-area children, speaks at a rally about prison reform at Lake Eola Park in Orlando, Florida, on Saturday, July 23, 2022. (Amanda Rabines/Orlando Sentinel/TNS)
Ruben Saldaña, a formerly incarcerated person who now serves as a mentor to Orlando-area children, speaks at a rally about prison reform at Lake Eola Park in Orlando, Florida, on Saturday, July 23, 2022. (Amanda Rabines/Orlando Sentinel/TNS)

Rising temperatures spell hard times for prisoners. When the heat picks up in Florida, advocates and family members say temperatures can exceed 100°F inside, putting prisoners with medical issues like asthma at risk.

“On a day like today I know it’s brutal,” James Caesar, a formerly incarcerated person, told the Orlando Sentinel. “You’re locked up with no where to go. You sit in shorts and just fan yourself.”

Average high temperatures in Florida are increasing. Recent data shows the state has an average of 25 dangerous heat days — days when the temperatures reach 103 degrees Fahrenheit or more — each year. Climate Central predicts by 2050 Florida will see 130 such days each year, more than any other state. And even when temperatures are in the 90s, the heat index makes it feel over 100 degrees.

Between 2005 to 2019, 37 counties in the state have seen an increase in heat-related illness emergency room visits, according to Florida Department of Health data.

“It was torture,” Caesar, 66, said. He spent five years incarcerated and was released in 2017.

Only about 24% of housing units in state-run prisons have air conditioning, according to the Florida Department of Corrections.

It oversees 639 housing units across 143 facilities statewide. Those facilities include 50 correctional institutions.

Only 18 offer air-conditioned dorms.

DOC press secretary Paul Walker said air-conditioned housing units are usually reserved for populations that are ill, pregnant and geriatric. The general population, he adds, have access to air-conditioning in buildings designated for special programs, like chapel services.

Prisoners living in dorms with no A/C during the hot summer months have the option to purchase personal fans through the commissary.

At the event, State Rep. Anna Eskamani said these resources are not enough.

“We got to make sure that no matter how much money you have, if you’re under the protection of the state in a rehabilitation program, in one of our prisons, that you are taken care of and part of that is air conditioning,” she said. “It is a basic human right.”

Though she didn’t attend Saturday’s event, Democratic candidate for governor and current Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried said in a recent social media post that as governor she would require every prison in Florida to have air conditioning.

In an interview with the Orlando Sentinel on Wednesday, she admitted she hasn’t looked into the cost yet, but plans to use her veto powers as governor, if elected, to work toward that goal.

“That veto pen is significant, as is the opportunity to veto the entire budget until [the legislature] recognizes that it’s better to work together than to divide us, especially on issues that should not be partisan,” she said.

“Unfortunately we have a lot of people in Tallahassee that are more focused on getting re-elected and recognize that so many of these prisoners don’t have the right to vote for them...These are human beings that live here in the state and we have an obligation to make sure that we are not treating them in an inhumane and torturous manner.”

Without going into further detail, Walker said that retrofitting buildings with A/C comes at a “substantial cost.”

“Classic prison architecture from years ago was not meant to be modified; security is the primary and overriding design feature,” he said.

The last major facility built with A/C was completed in 2012. Some smaller reentry centers were finished in early in 2013, according to FDOC. Only 11 institutions overseen by FDOC were built to include air conditioning.

Several activists at the rally believe for conditions to change there needs to be a change in leadership at Tallahassee.

Speakers included Mark Caruso, a retired DOC sergeant who is running for Winter Springs mayor; civil rights attorney Robert Slama; State Rep. Dianne Hart; Trinity Tresner, a district aide to Maitland Democratic Rep. Joy Goff-Marcil; Ruben Saldana, a formerly incarcerated person who now serves as a mentor to Orlando-area children; and Alexandra Barry, founder of Siblings of Murdered Siblings.

Keith Harris, a director at Florida Justice League, said poor ventilation makes depriving conditions worse in Florida’s prison system and inmates more prone to violence.

“Can you imagine living in one of those cells over there in that picture right there, and there’s no A/C, no ventilation coming from that room? You’re like a biscuit in an oven,” he said. “FDOC has their own mission statement that says that they’re transforming one life at a time. I’d like to change that first word to traumatizing one life at a time."

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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