Monday numbers: Lack of air conditioning in state prisons is “cooking people alive”
State is trying to install AC in all prisons, but progress is slow
An incarcerated person working at a North Carolina prison. As a workaround to a labor shortage, North Carolina is relying on some of its incarcerated workforce to install air conditioning in prisons. (Photo from the Department of Adult Correction website.)
As the heat stretches on in the dog days of summer, about one-third of the roughly 31,000 people in North Carolina prisons don’t have air-conditioned cells.
“It’s just cooking people alive,” said Cierra Cobb, the prison/jail coordinator, family advocate and a podcast host for the advocacy group Emancipate NC.
The Department of Adult Correction is embarking on a multi-year effort to air condition all the prisons in the state, two years after legislators appropriated $30 million to cool the 53 correctional facilities across North Carolina. Progress on construction has been slow and is expected to take two to three more years.
“Work is proceeding as quickly as possible. This project is a priority,” John Bull, a communications officer with the prison system, wrote in an email to Cobb in July. “These are not easy projects and pose substantial complications from a design and construction perspective and are substantially more difficult than hiring a contractor to put in a HVAC unit in a residential home.”
Many correctional facilities are old, making it a challenge to complete the renovations. Bull said some prisons were built in the 1930s and need upgrades just to “prepare” to install air conditioning.
The department sent a press release in June stating that it had finished air conditioning work in one unit at Caswell Correctional Center and expected to provide air conditioning for another 350 imprisoned people in July. They also identified five prisons to prioritize for air conditioning construction over this year or the next, which will provide cooling spaces for 4,000 people.
Beyond that, there is no hierarchy in which prisons will receive air conditioning, Bull told NC Newsline in an email. “That’s to be determined,” he said. “These are large and complicated HVAC projects.”
The heat can pose substantial risks for incarcerated people, particularly the elderly. The state’s prison population is aging. The percentage of imprisoned people who are 60 or older is increasing, as those with long sentences remain incarcerated. A new study from the Prison Policy Initiative found that 14% of people in North Carolina prisons were age 55 or older in 2019; in comparison, in 2000, they made up 3% of those behind bars.
Cobb, who corresponds with about a dozen people in prisons across North Carolina, said she has received messages from older individuals concerned about how the heat can impact their high blood pressure, though she has not heard of anyone having to be hospitalized or passing out from the heat.
“It’s causing more health problems for the elderly when they’re stuck in the heat and don’t have a way to cool themselves down,” Cobb told NC Newsline. “The heat is exacerbating their health issues even more.”
The prison system has a webpage that details the air-conditioning needs of each prison. It refers to cooling systems in terms of bed space. But, Cobb said, the spaces in prisons that are partly air-conditioned are not always where the incarcerated spend their time. Warren Correctional Institution, where Cobb’s husband is incarcerated, has air conditioning in the space where her husband slept (he has since been moved to another part of the facility), but not in the dayroom where he spent his most of his time.
That forces incarcerated people to make a choice: stay in their cell where it’s air conditioned, or go to the common area, where it’s not. Cobb said the prison does have exhaust fans in that space, but they aren’t always on.
“Some days were unbearable. Everybody was in there sweating,” Cobb said. “It was causing tension in the block because everybody’s hot.”
The department’s webpage states that almost two-thirds of prison beds at Warren are in air-conditioned parts of the building.
The following figures are mostly pulled from a Department of Adult Correction webpage about the prison system’s air conditioning upgrades.
31,029 — Number of people in North Carolina prisons, as of Aug. 11, per their website
15,211 — Number of prison beds that are not in air-conditioned parts of correctional facility. Construction is ongoing to cool 2,900 beds, leaving 12,311 beds still in the heat
$30 million — Amount the General Assembly earmarked to design and install air conditioning units at 40 prisons across North Carolina by 2026
148 — Number of buildings in prisons across the state that will receive air conditioning retrofits or upgrades
50+ — Average age of prisons that are receiving upgrades to their cooling systems
22 — Number of prisons where 100% of spaces housing incarcerated people have air conditioning
53— Number of prisons across North Carolina
Two: Number of prisons that do not have any air conditioning where incarcerated people sleep. Those facilities are Columbus Correctional Institution in Whiteville that can hold up to 698 people, and Craggy Correctional Center in Asheville, which holds about 600 incarcerated people.
10: Number of prisons in which less than 20% of incarcerated people sleep in air-conditioned housing units:
- Columbus Correctional Institution
- Craggy Correctional Center
- Lumberton Correctional Institution, holds up to 768 people, air conditioning in 2.5% of spaces where beds are located
- Richmond Correctional Institution, up to 801 men, air conditioning in about 5% of spaces where beds are located
- Avery-Mitchell Correctional Institution, up to 816 men, air conditioning in nearly 6% of its bed space
- Albemarle Correctional Institution, up to 624 men air conditioning in about 6.5% of where its beds are located
- Caswell Correctional Center, holds up to 460 people has air conditioning in almost 18% of spaces where incarcerated people sleep
- Dan River Prison Work Farm, up to 640 people, air conditioning in just over 6% of bed spaces
- Greene Correctional Institution, up to 616 people nearing the end of their sentence, has air conditioning in about 6% of bed space
- Gaston Correctional Center, holds up to 242 people, has air conditioning in about 19% of places where incarcerated people sleep
If you know someone in a North Carolina prison and wish to share your experience, email NC Newsline reporter Kelan Lyons at [email protected].
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