Why indoor air quality is the sleeping monster in correctional facilities

Responsibility for the health and safety of correctional officers and inmates goes beyond the walls of the medical clinic

Article updated on August 5, 2017.

By Paul Sheldon and Eugene Atherton, www.GreenPrisons.org.

We often forget that the responsibility for the health and safety of correctional officers and inmates goes beyond the walls of the medical clinic. It encompasses facility-wide issues that are the direct responsibility of leadership, such as the temperature and quality of air that correctional officers and inmates must breath.

If not properly attended to, HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning) systems can become major pathways for the distribution of diseases, germs, viruses, mold, mites and toxins.
If not properly attended to, HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning) systems can become major pathways for the distribution of diseases, germs, viruses, mold, mites and toxins. (Photo/Pixaby)

If not properly attended to, HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning) systems can become major pathways for the distribution of diseases, germs, viruses, mold, mites, toxins and other health risks. 

Keeping systems clean and sanitary is an important aspect of HVAC maintenance. 

Airborne infectious disease transmission can be reduced using:

  • Dilution;
  • Ventilation;
  • Specific in-room flow regimes;
  • Room pressure differentials;
  • Personalized and source capture ventilation;
  • Filtration;
  • Ultraviolet germicidal irradiation (UVGI).

By addressing the HVAC system in all its facets, planners and maintenance personnel can obtain significant savings and prevent future expenses. HVAC presents an opportunity to reduce operating costs and increase the healthfulness of indoor spaces. Improving insulation and other heat transfer technologies can increase energy efficiency and comfort. 

HVAC is all about heat. When there is too much heat outside, HVAC keeps heat out of the buildings or moves it out. When it’s too cold outside, HVAC puts heat in and keeps it in. Because heat transfer is the essence of HVAC, the most effective programs begin with insulation, sealing leaks, and other forms of heat transfer barriers to reduce the undesired gain or loss of heat. 

Proper HVAC maintenance also includes reducing the spread of allergens, toxins and pathogens. With proper HVAC design, installation and maintenance, correctional institutions can take restorative, preventative and cost-effective measures to save money, prevent future expense, maximize comfort and mitigate the risk of the spread of infectious diseases.

What Causes Poor Indoor Air Quality?

  • Insufficient air circulation;
  • Tobacco smoke;
  • Airborne particles from cooking and frying;
  • Mold;
  • Allergens, bacteria and viruses;
  • Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) from paint, flooring and adhesives;
  • Toxic cleaning chemicals and paints, containing VOCs and phenols;
  • Construction debris;
  • Fiberglass insulation;
  • Lead paint;
  • Asbestos;
  • Raw sewage;
  • Smoke and fire damage;
  • Auto and truck exhaust;
  • Animal waste from service animals or birds;
  • Untreated water damage;
  • Standing water.

how to improve air quality in correctional facilities

1. Duct cleaning

Duct cleaning removes dust, dirt and allergens that may impede air flow and contribute to poor indoor air quality, as well as contribute to respiratory discomfort, increased incidence of asthma attacks and the spread of nosocomial infections. 

Mold, bacteria and viruses thrive in areas where there is minimal light, high-humidity and enough organic material upon which to colonize.

Preparing ducts for treatment with non-toxic, environmentally-safe, anti-microbial, anti-bacterial, anti-viral, anti-fungal, long-lasting disinfectant will also reduce health risks and prevent future health-related absenteeism and claims.

2. Personal protective filtration masks

Masks made of patented, non-woven fabric can filter particles as small as .3 microns. Virtually all medically related pathogens are larger than .3 microns.

Proper masks are one-size-fits-all, and adhere directly to the skin with a non-allergic adhesive which forms an airtight seal around the face, eliminating leakage. Masks with straps or bands have been shown to leak (up to 10%) and thereby are not effective in preventing the spread of pathogens.

As an example, the unique, patented National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH)-rated Sander’s system allows for “high-efficiency particulate air” (HEPA) or near-HEPA filtration of the entire facility’s air handling system, trapping and holding the suspended pathogen as it enters the HVAC system. This installation requires no retrofit to the air handling system and will filter the air, trapping and holding, thereby eliminating, down to .3 submicron particles, asbestos, fiberglass, allergens, mites and pathogens before they can be mixed and spread to other rooms, thus providing superior medical containment.

In medical areas, wearing respiratory masks can prevent exposure to and spread of hospital/clinic-related pathogens and particulates in the air that can be spread through airborne transmission or drawn into return vents and circulated through the HVAC system to and from caregivers, medical staff, cleaning staff, infected patients and the general population.

3. Antimicrobial/anti-bacterial/anti-fungal/anti-viral treatment

Advanced cleaning and sanitation solutions are non-toxic, environmentally-safe, contain no phenols or volatile organic compounds (VOCs), and are intended for use in occupied settings. The solutions eliminate up to 99.99999% of bacteria, viruses and mold on contact.

Once applied, the surface treatment remains indefinitely and provides continuous protection in all but the busiest traffic areas. Applying surface treatment to condensate pans in HVAC closets, around water heaters, dishwashers, and in laundry areas inhibits mold growth. One-time treatment and periodic cleaning would reduce the incidence of illness, reduce absenteeism, and save substantial money currently being spent on medical care.

4. Furnace tune-ups

This simple maintenance includes cleaning of dust, dirt, detritus and treating with environmentally-safe and non-toxic solutions that reduce or eliminate mold, bacteria, virus and allergens.

The ENERGY STAR® program maintains an informative website on HVAC tune-ups. According to this program, maintenance “tune-ups” for the HVAC system include:

  • Check thermostat settings to ensure the HVAC system keeps the space comfortable when occupied and saves energy when not occupied.
  • Tighten all electrical connections and measure voltage and current on motors. Faulty electrical connections can cause unsafe operation of the system and reduce the life of major components.
  • Lubricate all moving parts. Parts that lack lubrication cause friction in motors, increase the amount of electricity use, and can shorten the life of the equipment.
  • Check and inspect the condensate drain in the central air conditioner, furnace and/or heat pump (when in cooling mode). A plugged drain can cause water damage in the building and affect indoor humidity levels.
  • Check controls of the system to ensure proper and safe operation. Check the starting cycle of the equipment to assure the system starts, operates, and shuts off properly.

Cooling specific maintenance includes:

  • Clean evaporator and condenser air conditioning coils. Dirty coils reduce the system's ability to cool a building and cause the system to run longer, increasing energy costs and reducing the life of the equipment.
  • Check the central air conditioner's refrigerant level and adjust if necessary. Too much or too little refrigerant will make the system less efficient, increasing energy costs and reducing the life of the equipment.
  • Clean and adjust blower components to provide proper system airflow for greater comfort levels. Airflow problems can reduce the system's efficiency by up to 15 percent.

Heating specific maintenance includes:

  • Check all gas (or oil) connections, gas pressure, burner combustion and heat exchanger. Improperly operating gas (or oil) connections are a fire hazard and can contribute to health problems. A dirty burner or cracked heat exchanger causes improper burner operation. Either can cause the equipment to operate less safely and efficiently.

Additional Actions Inmates Can Do with Minimal Training

Inspect, clean or change air filters once a month in the central air conditioner, furnace and/or heat pump. A staff contractor can demonstrate how to do this. A dirty filter can increase energy costs and damage the equipment, leading to early failure.

When using coil cleaners, it is important to use non-toxic, environmentally-safe solutions.

Most HVAC systems use air filters on return vents and at the air handler. Gaps and leaks around existing ducts, and inefficient air filters allow heat to escape or penetrate and do not effectively trap pathogens, allergens, etc., before they are drawn into the system and circulated throughout the zone. Sealing leaks, cleaning the surfaces surrounding the ducts, or repairing or replacing bent or broken filter receptacles, and implementing the use of superior filters can efficiently trap pathogens and other particulate matter.


The authors recommend that leadership remain aware of the importance of air quality to health and welfare. Further, it is recommended that they work with facility staff to insure effective maintenance strategies are on the institutional routine work plan.

Paul Sheldon, MA, is senior advisor for www.GreenPrisons.org, a founding member of the ACA Clean and Green Committee, and a member of the Board of Directors of www.PlantingJustice.org.

Eugene Atherton has recently completed an assignment as Corrections Advisor to the U.S. State Department, in Kabul, Afghanistan, is the former deputy director of the Colorado Department of Corrections, and is President of Correctional Consulting Services Group (CSSG), Inc.

Recommended for you

Get the C1 Leadership Newsletter

Thanks! You've been successfully signed up for the Corrections1 Leadership

Copyright © 2021 Corrections1. All rights reserved.