An overwhelming majority of state-run prisons in North Carolina lack air conditioning for all inmates.
That means thousands of people incarcerated across the state have little respite from the heat and humidity of the summer months, except for maybe a fan circulating air or a cup of ice water. And scientists predict extreme heat in North Carolina will only become more frequent and intense.
“Imagine you are in a space with concrete walls and there's only one window,” says Miea Walker, criminal justice manager for the Durham-based nonprofit Forward Justice. “And...it's not even just the heat. It's the heaviness of the heat.”
Walker advocates for the rights of incarcerated and formerly-incarcerated people. But a few years ago, she herself was in prison. She got out in 2012 after serving nine years for embezzlement. And now, six years later, she taps on the wall behind her as if she was in a cell again.
“It’s hard to breathe,” she says. “Imagine you're in an air conditioned room, and it's super cold and then you go outside and it's like 100 degrees out there and it just hits you and sucks the air out. That's what it was like.”
Walker served time at the North Carolina Correctional Institution for Women in Raleigh -- she and other offenders and prison staff know it as NCCIW. Just 12 percent of its inmate beds are air conditioned.
“We would run in in the middle of the night and go take a cold shower just because it was just that hot,” Walker says. “And we weren't supposed to. But, you know, there were some officers there that were very compassionate and were like, ‘Yeah, we get it.’”
For some women, Walker says, the lack of AC was an issue of health, not just comfort.
“I think the main concern was for the elderly population that we really took care of,” Walker says of fellow inmates helping each other out. “We would put bags of ice on them, or go get like a cold wash cloth, just to make sure they're okay. Because we understood that, we're the only ones who want to take care of each other.”
‘Everybody’s Going To Be At Risk’
Medical experts say sustained exposure to heat and humidity can cause muscle cramps, nausea, dizziness or fainting. Without treatment, these symptoms can progress to heat exhaustion or stroke. Pregnant women and the elderly are especially vulnerable.
“To not have air conditioning in North Carolina in the summer is pretty uncomfortable,” says Michele Casey, a primary care physician for Duke Health. “Whether you’re talking about your prisoners, or your prison guards, everybody’s going to be at risk. And I think everybody has a right...for us to work hard to prevent any kind of heat illness.”
This past summer the temperature in Raleigh, where NCCIW is located, rose above 90 degrees on more than 40 days. Several sources allege inmates at the prison fainted from the heat. But prison health services didn’t report any heat-related illnesses at NCCIW during that time frame.
“I’m not aware of someone fainting because of heat, but I mean, that is possible,” says Kenneth Lassiter, North Carolina’s Director of Prisons.
Lassiter says on hot days, guards monitor prisoners closely and make sure they have access to water. He says many of the state’s prisons are too old to be retrofitted with AC, and he says it would be too costly.
“But we have children, and I mean, I’m not comparing it, but I have to as it relates to priorities for state budgeting, is that we have children in some of the most dilapidated schools,” Lassiter says. “And so for us to go lobby for a building for air conditioning is probably not a lobby we would do.”
Lassiter says his budget is already stretched thin. And the state’s prison system, which houses more than 37,000 inmates in 55 facilities, has had one challenge after another -- including a near-20 percent vacancy rate among staff. Last fall, inmates at a prison in Pasquotank beat four employees to death.
Meriel Brodie knows all this. She’s helped run Catholic prayer services for women at NCCIW for more than a decade, and she’s very aware of the problems plaguing the state’s prison system. Still, she thinks the lack of AC is an immediate concern.
“The more I heard about it from the women, the angrier I got about it,” Brodie says. “I thought, especially this summer, it was so hot and miserable, and here they are, without air conditioning, and just fans at the end of a hall. Not enough to bring in fresh air.”
Brodie believes it’s a problem for the guards at NCCIW, too.
“North Carolina has such a problem keeping employees in the prison system,” she says. “Well, if you're going to be working outside or in un air-conditioned buildings -- yes, I wouldn't want to work that job at all. Not here.”
Through her volunteer work, Brodie says she has gotten to know some of the inmates at NCCIW well, and she says she’s learned a lot from them.
“I feel that the women and men who are in prison: yes, they're paying for their crimes,” Brodie says. “They do need to atone for that. But they should not be housed in inhumane conditions. And here in North Carolina, being without air conditioning is not humane.”
Scientists Predict Longer, More Intense Heat Waves
Brodie’s concerns are set against the pressing issue of climate change. Temperature readings across the state and globe show the current decade has been the hottest on record. And a new government report pinpoints Raleigh as having an especially high risk for more intense and longer heat waves.
Lassiter, the state prison director, says climate change patterns don’t factor into his agency’s planning.
“As far as looking at the trends of weather, I must be honest,” he said. “We haven’t looked at those 10-, 15-year trends and said, ‘Okay, it’s going to be this hot, so we’ve got to make sure we don’t have a prison that doesn’t have air conditioning.’”
Lassiter says he’s worked in corrections for 29 years, and he hasn’t heard of an inmate dying or having a heatstroke from being in a prison without AC.
Miea Waker, the former prisoner turned advocate, doesn’t think this matters.
“You wouldn't leave your dog outside, right? Or leave your baby in the car, right?” Walker said. “So it's kind of the similar process of you, you wouldn't leave someone that you love in a space where they're miserable, all day long.”
Without more funding, state prison officials may not have a choice.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the number of years Miea Walker served in prison.