As summer temps rise, Adult Correction makes progress air conditioning prisons

By: - June 30, 2023 10:32 am
a view from outside Central Prison in Raleigh

Raleigh’s Central Prison (Photo: Clayton Henkel)

The Department of Adult Correction completed its first project in a long-term plan to cool all housing areas in North Carolina’s 53 prisons, a spokesperson announced Thursday.

Officials finished performing air conditioning work in one unit at Caswell Correctional Center earlier this month. They’ll finish more in July, providing air conditioning for another 350 imprisoned people. Per a press release, they expect to add air conditioning for another 400 people in September and October.

“The close conditions in an institutional setting can make the normal heat of a North Carolina summer even more uncomfortable,” Secretary of Adult Correction Todd Ishee said in a statement. “Emotions rise with the temperatures, amplifying the risk of conflict and possibly violence.”

Prisons can get very hot in the summer months. Temperatures can hit 100 degrees or more for days at a time, with a heat index up to 150. The head of Texas’ correctional officer union told The Marshall Project that leaving people in prisons during such hot weather is akin to “cooking them to death.”

North Carolina’s General Assembly set aside $30 million in 2021 to start upgrading the 40 prisons that don’t aren’t fully outfitted with cooling systems. Right now, about 63% of all prison beds are in air-conditioned housing units. About 15,000 of the 30,700 people in prison do not have air conditioning.

“We’re thankful our Legislature and Governor heard us,” Ishee said, “and that they provided means for us to begin making the state’s correctional system a more accommodating workplace for our correctional professionals and a safer environment for everyone.”

Staffing vacancies are pervasive across the prison system. A DAC press release states that putting air conditioning in prisons across North Carolina could go a long way toward recruiting and retaining prison employees.

Expanding air conditioning could also help elderly people behind bars. The state’s prison population is growing older, as the percentage of imprisoned people who are age 60 and older is increasing as those with long sentences remain incarcerated.

The work, though, will be slow. The DAC press release notes that retrofitting the prisons is challenging because many of the buildings are old — as in, half a century or older. Engineering teams need to assess each prison’s housing unit to figure out whether they can support large commercial air conditioning units. Incarcerated people also need to be shifted around the prison system in order to perform the construction.

The press release also notes there is also a labor shortage that further complicates how fast DAC can install air conditioning. To deal with that, officials have enrolled the help of the incarcerated themselves. Those in the Construction Apprenticeship Program have also been tapped to help out.

The prison system prioritized air conditioning upgrades at five facilities to start, cooling spaces for 4,000 people. Those facilities, which will be outfitted with air conditioning this year or next, are:

  • Caswell Correction Center
  • Harnett Correctional Institution
  • N.C. Correctional Institution for Women
  • Dan River Prison Work Farm
  • Albemarle Correctional Institution

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Kelan Lyons
Kelan Lyons

Investigative Reporter Kelan Lyons writes about criminal and civil justice, including high-profile litigation, prison and jail conditions, housing, and the challenges people face when they leave prison.