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Heat Rising: The Deadly Issue of Prison Heat Conditions

Credit: vividcorvid | Fotolia

Rising temperatures during the summer months are significantly impacting the United States, leading to heightened vulnerability for incarcerated individuals. A lack of air conditioning, insufficient cooling methods, and standard prison architecture which increases internal prison temperatures, is leaving prisoners unprotected during intense heat waves. This past summer alone, the Texas Tribune reported that Texas, a state that averaged one of the highest temperatures in the country in July 2023, saw at least forty-one people inside state-run prisons die from heart-related or unknown causes due to extreme heat.

In fact, a recent study analyzed prison populations across state-run and privately run prisons during June, July, and August between 2001 and 2019. The research found that a “10-degree temperature increase above the average correlated with a 5.2 percent increase in deaths—or a 6.7 percent increase among prisoners with heart disease,” as well as a significant increase in suicides. In addition, the study found that these deaths were actually highest in the Northeast, illustrating that this problem exists outside the notoriously hot southern states in the United States. Despite these staggering statistics and its impact on states all over the country, little has been done to address the growing problem. This article seeks to analyze the lack of federal mandates surrounding this constitutional issue and efforts that have been brought forward at the California state level as well as any attempts at federal legislation.

The Lack of Federal Prison Heat Regulations

The Eighth Amendment of the United States Constitution ensures no infliction of cruel or unusual punishment. The Supreme Court in Farmer v. Brennan, 511 U.S. 825, 832 (1994) explained that the Eighth Amendment allows for scrutiny of a prisoner's treatment and confinement conditions in prison. Ball v. LeBlanc, 792 F.3d 584, 592 (5th Cir. 2015) also reasoned that extreme cell temperatures can violate the Eighth Amendment if the prison conditions pose “an unreasonable risk of serious damage” to a prisoner's health and if prison officials have acted with deliberate indifference to the risk posed.

This constitutional protection, however, has been largely ignored regarding prison heat conditions, as there are no federal regulations requiring temperature controls within federal prisons. The Bureau of Prisons (BOP), the department that manages federal prisons, has set guidelines for standard prison temperatures, but states that “due to issues such as the age of the cooling and heating systems and the inability to control temperatures in individual spaces, occupants may experience a range of temperatures in their space that is a few degrees on either side of the targeted set point.” There is no definition within the guidelines that defines “a few degrees,” leading to the assumption that the target set point and the actual temperature inside the prisons can vary greatly. In addition, there is no national standard for temperatures in prisons and jails, nor a national mandate requiring correctional facilities to establish emergency procedures or proper staff training when faced with extreme heat conditions. The lack of a national standard has led prisoners in the dangerous position of having to fend for themselves. Given the lack of federal regulations, states are tasked with adopting and implementing their own policies within their state prisons.

California Mandates within State Prisons

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) has recently adopted an extreme heat prevention and response policy to prevent heat related illness within all thirty-three California state prisons. Although originally created in compliance with California’s mandatory Heat Illness Prevention Regulation for employees, CDCR has extended these protections to incarcerated individuals to address the deadly impact of extreme heat within the state’s prison system.

The policy outlines heat contingency plans, which include installing swamp coolers and fans in all housing units where the incarcerated individuals are celled. Additionally, Heat Plan Coordinators at each prison will monitor outside and inside temperatures to determine if the heat is extreme enough to trigger one of the three stages of the heat contingency plan. This plan entails increased access to water stations, fans, and cooling units. Staff will relocate vulnerable individuals to air-conditioned spaces if necessary, and nursing staff will conduct health checks every two hours if the temperature inside rises above 95 degrees.

A UCLA study, which reviewed CDCR’s extreme heat policy and surveyed almost 600 incarcerated individuals, called attention to inadequacies and challenges that incarcerated individuals in California faced amidst increasing climate emergencies related to heat. The study revealed that eighteen out of the thirty-three state prisons face risks due to extreme weather conditions. Furthermore, Cal Fire, a fire department that aims to protect California from fires through prevention and emergency services, categorizes more than two-thirds of these facilities within five miles of high-risk areas for wildfires.

Moreover, survey responses highlighted the gaps in the prison system’s preparedness. A staggering 86% of the incarcerated people surveyed reported experiencing power outages or generator failures. This demonstrates CDCR's inability to follow its own heat prevention policy and place incarcerated individuals in air-conditioned rooms when the temperatures rise above 90 degrees inside the housing units. This is corroborated in survey results where 60% of respondents reported that they had no access to air conditioned spaces during extreme heat events and 61% experienced heat exhaustion while incarcerated.

Despite policy requirements, there is no direct funding nor training for staff, and the protocols in this plan have not prevented the problems associated with extreme heat in California state prisons. CDCR has acknowledged in a 2021 report the need to update prison infrastructure in accordance with increasing extreme weather conditions. Yet, the CDCR included that “due to historic funding shortages, CDCR’s backlog of deferred maintenance has continued to increase, delaying the replacement or repair that could bring needed upgrades and efficiencies.”

An article revealed that the CDCR repeatedly denied interview and record requests from the researchers involved in the UCLA study. Instead of withholding tools from researchers to improve CDCR’s policy, they could use it to show the state the need for additional funding to adequately support the individuals that the extreme heat policies aims to help.

Credit: Jitze Couperus | Flickr

Efforts to Create Regulations at the Federal Level

So far, there have been few attempts to create legislation at the federal level to protect prisoners from the ever growing climate crisis. However, the Correctional Facility Disaster Preparedness Act has been proposed to “require the Bureau of Prisons to submit to Congress an annual summary report of disaster damage, and for other purposes.” The Act defines the term “major disaster” to include “any natural disaster, extreme weather, or public health emergency that would activate the use of any one of the Bureau of Prisons eighteen contingency plans and the BOP determines is a major disaster.”

The Bureau of Prisons bill is a step in the right direction in terms of getting any attempt at federal legislation to acknowledge the need for BOP accountability. The bill, however, was more of a response to the effects that incarcerated people experienced during the peak of COVID-19. The bill referenced other kinds of severe weather conditions, rather than the focus specifically being on maintaining temperature controls. Therefore, it is still up in the air as to whether the BOP will determine severe heat waves to constitute a “major disaster.” Until more information is brought forward, there is a long wait ahead to see if prison heat regulations will be recognized as a serious issue that demands federal attention.


With heat temperatures increasing across the state of California and the rest of the United States, vulnerabilities to extreme heat are a problem that will only get worse without adequate prevention. If states’ financial priorities do not include providing air conditioning within their state prisons, those states could create policies within their prisons to allow for simpler and less expensive means for incarcerated people to stay cool. These measures are still being resisted in some states. The broader question is how we view criminality as a society, and what we will allow incarcerated people to experience in order to uphold and maintain that perspective.

*The views expressed in this article do not represent the views of Santa Clara University.


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