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Fla. lawmakers seek solutions for extreme heat conditions in state prisons

Equipping Florida correctional institutions with a proper HVAC system could take up to 20 years to complete and would require the state spend $582 million


The south unit of the Central Florida Reception Center, a state prison facility in Orlando on May 14, 2021. (Ricardo Ramirez Buxeda/Orlando Sentinel)

Ricardo Ramirez Buxeda/TNS

By Amanda Rabines
Orlando Sentinel

ORLANDO, Fla. — It was a tough summer for Roger Petrocelli, an incarcerated man who is currently serving his sentence at Tomoka Correctional Institution in Daytona Beach .

Nights, when temperatures hovered above 90s, were a reprieve. The warmth and humidity pushed the heat index past 100 degrees during the day, he said.

“Sweating, being hot and sticky from the heat and humidity inhibits one’s ability to exercise and sleep,” Petrocelli wrote in a letter shared with the Orlando Sentinel . “Having only a few hours of sleep due to heat over an extended period of time definitely has an effect on one’s attitude and tolerance level.”

Prison officials and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle acknowledge there’s a problem with extreme heat conditions inside Florida prisons, but the clearest path to providing Florida’s correctional institutions with air conditioning will likely take decades to complete and come at a staggering cost. And that’s if the state is willing to make the investment, which is far from certain.

With record-hot temperatures likely to continue, several Democratic state legislators and prison reform advocates are working on more immediate solutions to relieve people inside, including correctional officers who often have to endure grueling conditions while working.

In recent weeks, Sen. Tracie Davis and Rep. Angie Nixon, both representing Jacksonville, filed identical bills that would make it a requirement to provide some cool air inside dorm units by July 1 .

Under the measure, each state correctional institution would have to install a portable air conditioner or some sort of “air-cooling system” in each housing unit. Those would not be as efficient or effective as full central air, but it’s a start.

“We must make it clear that air conditioning is not a luxury, it’s a basic human right and necessity for human decency,” said State Rep. LaVon Bracy Davis , who represents parts of Orange County including most of Ocoee. “By providing air conditioning to our prisons we are not only ensuring the physical comfort of those incarcerated but also creating an environment conducive to rehabilitation and growth.”

Last week Bracy Davis joined Representatives Nixon, Yvonne Hayes Hinson, who represents parts of Alachua and Marion counties, and State Rep. Anna Eskamani, D- Orlando, at the Florida Capitol to gather support for the bills.

“Florida has one of the largest incarceration rates in the nation. That is a problem,” Eskamani said. “What makes the situation even worse is the conditions in our prisons. Whether it’s the quality of food available, the quality of recreational activities or in this case the basic fundamental need for air conditioning.”

Over 75% of state-run correctional housing units, or more than 500 dorms, don’t have air-conditioning. Those that do are usually reserved for the most vulnerable populations inside prison, including the mentally ill, pregnant and geriatric.

Last year, Connie Beroth Edson , an advocate for air conditioning in prisons, and Rep. Hayes Hinson helped authorize a pilot program that tested large portable evaporative coolers at Lowell Correctional Institution in Marion County , the state’s largest women’s prison.

The Florida Department of Corrections bought five of the coolers, but after several months of testing them officials concluded the devices were faulty, dripping water on bunks, according to Beroth Edson.

Representatives at FDC did not respond to a request for comment.

Beroth Edson said FDC is also in the process of testing a donated mini-split A/C unit, which is a small, ductless cooler that has the power to cool down up to 600 square feet of space.

“I know that doesn’t solve the problem completely but we cannot wait until something is built,” she said. “We need a solution now. People are suffering.”

Equipping Florida correctional institutions with a proper HVAC system could take up to 20 years to complete and would require the state spend $582 million, according to the auditing firm KPMG. The firm was hired by FDC last year for $2 million to create a modernization plan that looks at ways to address the chronic staffing shortages and high turnover rates at FDC, in addition to meeting maintenance and infrastructure needs to avoid potentially costlier issues in the future.

Their final report is due next month and will likely emerge as hot button topic during next year’s legislative session.

At a Nov. 15 Appropriations Committee on Criminal and Civil Justice meeting, consultants said the state would need to invest up to $12 billion to modernize Florida’s carceral system, but it can choose to spend less where it deems necessary by choosing to mitigate problems instead of fixing them.

Sen. Jonathan Martin , R- Fort Myers , suggested it would be better to spend half a billion dollars on the salaries of correctional officers instead of investing in HVAC, but KPMG representatives called air conditioning a significant factor when it comes to staff retention.

“Especially in states with significantly hot and humid summers it’s a very important working condition,” said William “Bill” Zizic, a managing director in KPMG’s government and infrastructure practice.

“Of course, logic would tell us if you give raises it’s going to have an impact on some, but I would still say there are many who have walked the floor in those facilities on those 100-plus-degree days, that it is very difficult.”

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