Every winter brings with it new horror stories of freezing temperatures in U.S. prisons, jails and detention facilities. Across the country, vague regulations regarding temperature have resulted in harm and even death for incarcerated people.

Alfreda Jones, president of the group Advocates for Inmates, said complaints about cold temperatures have been an issue during the entire 20 years that she has been advocating for the rights and safety of incarcerated people. The coronavirus pandemic, which continues to surge in U.S. correctional and detention facilities, has exacerbated the health threats facing people who are confined in very cold temperatures.

“They get sick with the flu and colds and pneumonia,” she said. “It has been ongoing with the lack of heat in the wintertime. I get calls all of the time that it is just freezing in there. It is punishment on top of punishment.”

The U.N. Committee against Torture has expressed “extreme concern” over deaths in U.S. jails and prisons due to unbearable temperatures. It has called on the United States to “adopt urgent measures to remedy any deficiencies concerning temperature, insufficient ventilation and humidity levels in prison cells.”

“The experience in today’s correctional system focuses on punishment, not addressing harms or normalizing the environment,” said Clinique Chapman, associate director for the Vera Institute of Justice. “Systems, and those running the system, do not feel as if people who are incarcerated deserve a warm bed.”

Poor heating in prisons and jails creates dangerous situations, especially for people with mental health conditions. Certain antipsychotic drugs can affect the body’s ability to regulate temperature. Giving these drugs to people incarcerated in freezing conditions can lead to life-threatening hypothermia.

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“Without a blanket, all someone can do is get in the fetal position and hope he has enough shivering capacity to withstand the slow reduction of heat from his body,” writes Dr. Robert Pozos, the former director of the hypothermia research laboratory at University of Minnesota-Duluth.

In too many jails and prisons, the response to acute mental illness is not treatment by psychiatrists, but isolation in a small cell without warm clothes. A consultant hired to assess the East Baton Rouge Parish Prison found that people who were on suicide watch were given paper gowns and no sheets or blankets in temperatures so cold they risked hypothermia.

Jerome Laudman, a man diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, intellectual disability and bipolar disorder, died in 2008 after being kept naked for 11 days in solitary confinement, where he suffered hypothermia.

People detained in prison-like environments while their asylum cases are under review also report being subjected to unbearable cold. One segregation unit at the Pine Prairie ICE Processing Center in Louisiana had no heat at all; officers would retaliate against those who complained of the temperature by turning on fans and throwing away blankets. Some U.S. Customs and Border Protection holding cells are so cold they have been renamed hieleras (ice boxes) by people who have experienced them.

Opponents of such cruel treatment have supported clothing drives to collect warm clothes for incarcerated people. The fact that such drives exist underscores the need to radically transform the correctional system.

U.S. correctional facilities need to build a culture that truly respects and centers the humanity of people who are incarcerated. Unbearably cold temperatures are emblematic of excessive punishment and dehumanization. Incarcerated people deserve an environment grounded in respect for their dignity as human beings.


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