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Indoor temperatures break 100 at Kansas prisons without air conditioning

The sun shinning above the Topeka Correctional Facility
Blaise Mesa
Kansas News Service
Inmates dorms reached up to 100 degrees during the hottest days of summer.

Prisons run by the Kansas Department of Corrections aren't always air-conditioned, and inmates and staff who work inside say the heat can be unbearable.

TOPEKA, Kansas Inmate dorms topped 100 degrees during the hottest days of summer at the Winfield Correctional Facility. The state prison is one of the handful of Kansas Department of Corrections facilities without air conditioning throughout the entire building.

“The heat in Winfield is nearly unbearable,” said Demarcus Richards, a KDOC inmate who spent two years in Winfield. “It is inhuman, careless and negligent to not have air-conditioned living units given the heat waves that occur in Kansas during the summers.”

Richards, who has asthma, said he doesn’t have access to an inhaler even though he needs one.

The Kansas News Service requested temperature checks of inmate dorms at four state prisons on some of the hottest days of 2021. State prison officials declined to clarify how many facilities are completely or partially air conditioned.

Experts say the heat inside of prison can be dangerous to inmates and staff and makes the prison population more prone to violence. Yet the state runs a series of prisons, most of them decades old, that aren’t suited for extreme heat brought on by climate change.

KDOC didn’t comment on how much it would cost to cool its prisons.

Norton Correctional Facility didn’t take temperature checks on the days requested and temperatures at the Ellsworth Facility peaked at 90 degrees.

“It’s miserable,” said Yusuf Al-Bureni, an Ellsworth inmate, over email. “We have made mistakes, but do those mistakes deprive us of our humanity?”

He said no extra water is provided and small fans that can be purchased by those inmates who have the money don’t provide much relief. He said inmates fight for fans in the day room.

“It’s a constant struggle with no end. Everybody is on edge,” Al-Bureni said. “We are so much happier now that the summer is coming to an end. ... We definitely dread the coming of May through mid-September.”

There were 36 heat-related incidents and zero hospitalizations at the state’s eight facilities from June through September, Carol Pitts, spokesperson for the department of corrections, wrote in an email.

She said fans, swamp coolers and ice machines are brought in to cool the facilities.

Zachary Schlader, associate professor of kinesiology at Indiana University, said everyone has different thresholds of heat they can withstand, but 100 degree temperatures can be tolerated by someone if they avoid physical activity, if they’re healthy, provided enough water and if the humidity is low.

He said humidity is as important as temperature because the body cools off when sweat evaporates off of skin. If humidity is high and there is more moisture in the air, this process is slowed down.

On Aug. 24, when Winfield reached 102 degrees, the relative humidity was 64% in Sedan, Kansas, the Kansas State University’s Mesonet data read. Sedan is about 50 miles from the Winfield Correctional Facility, and it isn’t clear if KDOC records humidity in its temperature checks.

Schlader said that over time, humidity outdoors will be similar to humidity indoors.

Sarah LaFrenz, union president of the Kansas Organization of State Employees — the union that represents state prison workers — said staff have some air-conditioned rooms, but they spent hours in the heat.

“I find it really ridiculous that we continue to have to have conversations about why air conditioning may or may not be important,” LaFrenz said. “They shouldn’t be dealing with 100 degree temperatures when they’re trying to do work that’s already physically, emotionally and mentally taxing.”

Inmates and correctional officers alike both wear clothing not suited for warm weather. Inmates are in jeans and masks while officers have steel-toed boots, stab-resistant vests and other equipment.

LaFrenz said heat in Kansas lingers. Once warm temperatures arrive, it doesn’t cool down quickly.

KDOC didn’t comment on additional questions on how the department plans to combat future heat waves brought on by climate change. July was the hottest month ever recorded worldwide and the six hottest years all came after 2015.

Daniel Holt, who studied climate change and prisons at Columbia Law School, said prison systems will have to reckon with climate change.

He said prison officials should consider alternate methods of cooling, like painting a roof white, having rooftop vegetation or adding awnings. If the cost of cooling facilities is too expensive, Holt said prisons should consider reducing its population to close outdated facilities.

“We’ve got the benefit of thousands of years of human history of people living in really hot environments,” Holt said. “People long ago figured out passive ways of taking advantage of convection and taking advantage of the choice of building supplies and building strategies that minimize heat retention (and) maximize the benefits of shade.”

Blaise Mesa reports on criminal justice and social services for the Kansas News Service in Topeka. You can follow him on Twitter @Blaise_Mesa or email him at blaise@kcur.org.

The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy. 

Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.

Blaise Mesa is based in Topeka, where he covers the Legislature and state government for the Kansas City Beacon. He previously covered social services and criminal justice for the Kansas News Service.
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