Watchdog dings state for sweltering prisons, urges funding for air conditioning

By: - September 7, 2022 7:04 am

A watchdog urged lawmakers to invest in cooling state prisons, where 6,500 inmates and correctional officers suffered in the summer heat. (Photo by New Jersey Monitor)

About 3,500 inmates and 3,000 correctional officers suffered through the sultry summer in stifling prisons where temperatures reached 94 degrees, raising risks of heat illnesses, creating security threats, and suspending rehabilitative programs, according to a new report from the state Corrections Ombudsperson’s Office.

Ombudsperson Terry Schuster and Assistant Ombudsperson Kristin King urged legislators to invest in air conditioning in the state’s aging prisons, especially the three housing the most cells that are not air-conditioned: Bayside State Prison in Leesburg, East Jersey State Prison in Rahway, and Garden State Correctional Facility in Crosswicks.

As the corrections ombudsperson, Terry Schuster is tasked with investigating complaints, inspecting the state’s 11 adult prisons, and monitoring confinement conditions. (Photo courtesy of the N.J. Department of Corrections)

“The Department of Corrections is putting every Band-Aid they’ve got on this problem, but to really deal with the heat, lawmakers will have to prioritize fixing a few of our older prison buildings,” Schuster told the New Jersey Monitor.

The report is Schuster’s first since he took over the watchdog role, which had been vacant for a year, in May.

“We want incarcerated people to come out better than they went in and to have the type of experience inside prisons that’s going to make them good neighbors when they come home. Prison living conditions are important — not just for their safety, but also for public safety,” he said.

Bonnie Kerness, who heads the American Friends Service Committee’s prison watch program, said the report backs up complaints she’s fielded since the weather started warming months ago.

“I am grateful that the office was so responsive to these complaints,” Kerness said. “Our job now, as advocates, is to begin approaching legislators and saying this is a problem.”

Funding prison upgrades might be a tough sell at a time when the state has been working to reduce its inmate population and shutter old prisons. New Jersey now incarcerates 12,500 people in nine adult prisons, down from nearly 25,300 inmates in 2010.

But Kerness said the state could, as she has urged, invest in freestanding air conditioners to make cells more bearable, a cheaper alternative to facility-wide cooling systems.

Department of Corrections spokesman Dan Sperrazza said staff has expanded inmates’ access to showers, fluids, and ice to ensure relief from extreme heat.

The department sent prisons a memo in early July outlining cooling rules to follow when inside temperatures hit 86 degrees, according to the report.

Prisons staff should log temperatures at least once a shift, open windows if possible, and refer heat-illness complaints to prison medical staff, while administrators should assess the feasibility of installing portable or window air conditioners and misters, ensure ice machines work and meet all needs, and add cooling towels to commissaries, the memo said.

“We continue to work with all stakeholders to address the needs of the population and staff to ensure appropriate and fair treatment is provided to those within our custody,” Sperrazza said.

‘Like hell’

Investigators from Schuster’s office made site visits to the state’s adult prisons in July and August and found temperatures in some cells as hot as 88 to 94 degrees, conditions some inmates described as “like hell,” according to the report.

“Individual prison cells are pretty small — they’re closet-sized — and they have two people in them,” Schuster said. “Ninety-four degrees outside is one thing, but feeling that heat inside in such a small, shared space can be really excruciating.”

At the Garden State Correctional Facility, one person told investigators that some inmates intentionally broke rules or participated in assaults when it was intolerably hot so they could “catch a charge” and be transferred to air-conditioned disciplinary housing units.

Staff and labor leaders reported that unbearable heat increased irritability and slowed staff responses to prison security incidents, according to the report.

“Because people detained in prison facilities cannot leave of their own accord and have limited control over their movement, possessions, and environment, the state assumes a responsibility for their humane treatment,” Schuster wrote in the report.

We want incarcerated people to come out better than they went in and to have the type of experience inside prisons that’s going to make them good neighbors when they come home. Prison living conditions are important — not just for their safety, but also for public safety.

– Terry Schuster, New Jersey Corrections Ombudsperson

Prisons gave inmates ice on especially hot days to cool down — but some required inmates to pay for that perk, while facilities varied in how often they offered ice, with some just once a day, according to the report. The office fielded more than two dozen complaints from people living at Bayside who said staff gave no ice to a specific housing unit.

Besides investing in air conditioning, the report recommends the state:

  • Give inmates free personal fans and coolers for ice.
  • Offer sleeveless shirts or lighter clothing options for female inmates. The state incarcerates about 400 women, but they don’t receive the lighter clothing options male inmates get.
  • Create more cooling stations in common areas for inmates and staff.
  • Better plan for summer and winter cooling and heating needs by ensuring systems are in working order and supplies are in hand.
  • Educate inmates and staff about heat-related illness and ensure vulnerable people — those who are older or have physical or health issues — have better access to cooling resources.

Several prisons — Mid-State Correctional Facility in the Fort Dix area, Northern State Prison in Newark, and South Woods State Prison in Bridgeton — are already fully air-conditioned. Three others — New Jersey State Prison in Trenton, Edna Mahan Correctional Facility in Clinton, and the Adult Diagnostic and Treatment Center in Woodbridge — are only partially air-conditioned.

Schuster said he aims to put out an annual report in November and also plans to investigate four other prison issues in special reports over the coming year — safety, medical care, “purposeful activity” such as rehabilitative programs available to inmates, and visitation. He also expects to expand the office, which now has a staff of 11.

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Dana DiFilippo
Dana DiFilippo

Dana DiFilippo comes to the New Jersey Monitor from WHYY, Philadelphia’s NPR station, and the Philadelphia Daily News, a paper known for exposing corruption and holding public officials accountable. Prior to that, she worked at newspapers in Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and suburban Philadelphia and has freelanced for various local and national magazines, newspapers and websites. She lives in Central Jersey with her husband, a photojournalist, and their two children.