The return of hot weather is especially bad news for many of Virginia’s 30,000 prison inmates. Half of the state’s correctional centers have no air conditioning in the places where inmates live, and conditions may be causing fights and medical problems behind bars.
Delbert Sparks is not a man to make trouble, and this subject is not controversial, but we’ve opted to use a pseudonym so he can speak freely about air conditioning in prison:
“The general population tends to think of air conditioning as simply making air colder, but there’s so much more to it than that. There’s large particle filtration. There’s small particle filtration. There’s odor diffusion. There’s humidity control.”
Even in prisons that are not equipped to cool, he says, air conditioning is important to keep people healthy. Unfortunately, his prison was designed for half the number of men who now live there, and he says the place is unbearable on hot days.
“The construction is more security-minded than comfort-minded. It’s somewhat like a big oven, and with the failure to move the correct amount of air out, it becomes particularly stifling. Even as I stand here doing nothing more vigorous than speaking to you, even the people who are in the best of physical condition simply sweat while they’re doing nothing more than reading or playing cards.”
He says men in poor health often pass out in the heat and are taken to the infirmary. We tried for more than two weeks to find out how serious that problem might be. Our e-mails and phone calls went unanswered until we complained to the governor’s office. Then, a spokesman for the Department of Corrections wrote to say they’d decided not to do an interview.
We filed a Freedom of Information Act request but were informed that “the law does not compel public agencies to answer questions,” and medical information is confidential.
So we’re left with anecdotes from guys like Del.
“Our cells are seven by 12 - that’s 84 square feet. That’s for two full grown male human beings to occupy. It’s simply a recipe for disaster in some cases. Have there been fights? Yes ma’am. There have.”
Fans are used in many prisons, but he says they just push hot air around, and getting a good night’s sleep is nearly impossible.
“The sleep is fitful, and it’s rarely more than 3-4 hours at a time.”
What’s more, Sparks says, water in the showers is kept at a uniform temperature - too hot to refresh. The problem is compounded by the fact that prison HVAC systems are old.
“All of the equipment with the rare exception - maybe 5-10% of it - is all original, so it’s well over 30 years old. Some of those companies are no longer in business, and the parts are rather difficult to get.”
Newer prisons have systems that cool residential areas, and the state is retrofitting older buildings to make that possible. Until then, conditions are bad enough to get quiet guys like Delbert Sparks to speak up.
“You would not believe the BTU’s, the respiration, the heat, the odor that comes off of a person in the normal course of a day. We understand we’re felons, and we’re not here to be comfortable, but when it adversely affects our health, then that’s a point when we have to bring attention to the issue.”
The Department of Corrections is Virginia’s most expensive agency, costing taxpayers more than a billion dollars a year, and we wondered how much the state had budgeted to install cooling systems. We were told that “appropriations for capital projects are not broken down to that level of detail.”