‘This place is killing me': Former COs describe working in Fla. prisons without A/C
“You can see the exhaustion in the officers. It doesn’t help they’re so short-staffed and there’s no break for them”
By Amanda Rabines
ORLANDO, Fla. — For many prison reform activists, the need to do something about the lack of air conditioning inside state-run prisons is paramount.
Those who speak out for action believe forcing a person to endure extreme temperatures while serving their sentence is inhumane. They add the situation has become more crucial as Florida’s heat index roars past 100 degrees.
Over the past year, legislators on both sides of the aisle have acknowledged the need for a solution, in part because air conditioning would provide better working conditions for correctional officers and other people employed by the Florida Department of Corrections.
Enduring Florida’s hot summers without cool air, combined with the day-to-day stressors that come with working in a correctional institution, makes a tough job even more difficult and dangerous, supporters say.
Five former correctional officers and a prison program executive director interviewed by the Orlando Sentinel share that view.
When asked when and where a correctional officer can get relief from the heat, former FDC Sgt. Scott Smolik, said it’s only “when they leave, get in their car and turn their A/C on.”
Smolik, 57, said he worked at two different state-run prisons in Florida’s panhandle for 14 years before retiring as a sergeant in 2022.
“I thought to myself, I need to find a new job because this place is killing me,” he said.
What kept him in the position for so long were the benefits, Smolik adds.
The FDC, with a recently approved $3.3 billion budget, offers correctional officers a robust benefits package that includes hiring bonuses, state health coverage, state pension benefits and college tuition assistance. This year, the governor also approved raising starting salaries for correctional officers from $41,600 to $45,760 with additional bonuses at facilities that are understaffed.
“The pay’s not too shabby and the insurance is more than outstanding,” Peter Kelson, a former correctional officer who retired in 2021, said.
Throughout his career, Kelson, 67, worked in kitchen security, main units, work camps and transportation. He also oversaw a farm program in the Gainesville Correctional Institution from 2005 to 2011.
“The biggest issue as far as the air conditioning were the big dormitories. None of them are air-conditioned. If I needed to do anything that required a lot of inmate interactions… when I would come home my wife would think I got hosed down,” he said. “I was just drenched in sweat.”
Additional funding for the department this year is good news for Kelson. He said officers are “shorthanded” and there are “too many bad guys.”
“It’s dangerous for staff, dangerous for inmates,” he said. “They’re getting wise to that. I wasn’t willing to go back and, at 65, I didn’t have to.”
Multiple correctional officers complained about conducting showers or moving people who are incarcerated around to places like the dining hall.
“Chow hall was absolutely, positively disgusting,” Smolik said. “There’s no A/C where people eat.”
Aaron Herlihy, a correctional officer who left the role in April after two years of working at the Okeechobee Correctional Institution, said he did not look forward to the heat in the shower area. The process of assembling sometimes hundreds of incarcerated people so they can shower and change into clean clothes took hours, Herlihy said.
“Showers in Florida’s humidity, there’s no breeze, it’s like you’re suffocating,” he said. “I understand the inmates getting irritated because as a human we all get irritated when we heat up.”
Jacob Harris, a former sergeant, started working as a correctional officer at 19 years old at the Columbia Correctional Institution in Lake City. He resigned the year he turned 23, about two years ago.
“After showering inmates, you get to a point where you felt like you were going to pass out,” he said. Harris adds he remembers correctional officers setting their uniforms against a fan to air out.
In a statement, FDC Deputy Communications Director Paul Walker said all non-air-conditioned dorms use some form of climate control to mitigate heat, such as fans or exhaust systems.
Multiple correctional officers interviewed for the story said fans in officer stations were undependable.
“If you’re lucky, the fans work in the office,” Kelson said.
Harris, 25, said he preferred the exhaust fan off “so it doesn’t rotate the heat.”
According to the FDC spokesperson, every institution is audited and compliant with standards from the American Correctional Association regarding ventilation and HVAC systems.
“In addition, all housing units contain refrigerated water fountains to provide a source of cool water for the inmate population,” he said.
While there are fans, less than a quarter of all of the state-run correctional housing units provide cool air to protect against extreme heat conditions. Air-conditioned housing units are typically reserved for the most vulnerable populations inside prison, including the infirm, mentally ill, pregnant and geriatric.
Most of the correctional officers interviewed said their jobs, though invisible to the outside world, gave them a sense of purpose. They said they knew they were protecting people and that felt important.
Harris said he applied to be a correctional officer because he wanted to start a career in law enforcement. He left because he said he felt “unsafe,” physically and mentally.
Herlihy, 40, said it was another way to serve his country without joining the military.
“I only did it for two years, after two I just knew it wasn’t going to get any better, no matter how many good people are behind the fence,” he said. “It is tiring, hard work. I wanted to do that right thing, but eventually I had to put myself first.”
Mark Caruso, a former corrections sergeant from Winter Springs, said chronic staff shortages and long shifts are a major reason why people leave the profession.
“Once we buy into this believing all the promises we were told, the reality sets in quickly,” he said in a statement.
“We sit in officers stations with poor A/C and sometimes no A/C at all because it is broken and obviously not a priority to get fixed. We are told often that we must work mandatory overtime and we just did two nights ago. … Everyone is so tired we are snapping at one another and constantly stressed.”
In September, the department had a 24.1% employee vacancy rate statewide with more than 4,000 positions unfilled. Prior to that, from July 2020 to July 2021, the FDC had a net loss of 1,762 correctional officers. Staff numbers have grown since then thanks to salary increases, according to FDC officials at legislative hearing earlier this year.
The FDC did not share more recent data regarding the number of correctional officers hired and who have left, to date, this year.
Nathan Schaidt, the CEO of Horizon Communities, a faith-based program contracted with the FDC, said he intentionally wears suits when he’s visiting prisons to hide the sweat.
“People think I’m crazy but I’m only in there for a couple of hours,” he said, adding he sympathizes with both the officers and the people who are incarcerated.
“A lot of the guys [incarcerated individuals] they just try to sleep off the heat,” he said. “The only real relief they’ll have is when they take a shirt, get it wet and put it on and lay down. They let evaporation be the A/C.”
He adds officers need A/C too.
“Little things like that can make a huge difference,” he said. “You can see the exhaustion in the officers. It doesn’t help they’re so short-staffed and there’s no break for them.”