The city’s jail oversight body is putting the heat on the Correction Department to quickly to cool off the thousands of inmates without air conditioning.
The Board of Correction, which conducted surprise visits to local lockups during the weekend heat wave, called on the de Blasio administration to cough up the money to expand access to air conditioning in the jails immediately.
“Jail areas without air conditioning are too hot and the mitigating responses are too limited, despite concerted efforts by DOC leadership, correction officers, and other staff,” the board said in a statement. ”People should not be detained or required to work under these conditions.”
The heat wave “makes clear the lack of capacity to humanely house the current population and provide appropriate work conditions to city employees,” the board said.
The union representing city correction officers is also steamed about the heat conditions.
“If the city has $30 billion to spend for building four new jails, then certainly it has the capital resources to provide humane conditions in our current jails, starting with proper air conditioning during an oppressive heat wave and heating for the upcoming winter,” said Elias Husamudeen, president of the Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association.
Temperatures Not Taken
Elderly inmates or those with medical conditions are deemed “heat sensitive,” and must be housed in cooled areas. But more than 3,000 people were left to boil without AC during the weekend heat wave.
There is no temperature high at which city jail housing units are deemed uninhabitable. At the Brooklyn House of Detention this weekend, staff didn’t record the temperature of cells or hallways, all of which lack air conditioning, according to Brooklyn City Councilman Brad Lander.
A new and improved emergency heat plan for city jails is needed, he said, noting: “If they don’t even take the temperature, then how would you know how to implement the heat plan?”
Lander toured the Brooklyn House with Board of Correction staff Sunday.
“The housing units with the cells were just super bakingly hot,” he said. Even in a hallway with two big fans “one at either end, it was still very hot and the cells were still not well-ventilated because there’s no other windows so they’re just still like concrete ovens.”
The showers work by the push of a button, so detainees cannot adjust the temperature themselves to make them run cooler, Lander said. He added that long corridors lined with cells had little ventilation.
There is no A/C in any of the housing units, or in most staff areas either (only in the medical clinic & intake areas). It was, no surprise, very hot in the cells and hallways, a little better in the day-rooms.— Brad Lander (@bradlander) July 21, 2019
At the Brooklyn House, those individual cells open with bars onto the hallways, allowing some air flow. But at the Enhanced Supervision Housing (ESH) units on Rikers, where detainees are only allowed to be out of their single-occupancy cells for a few hours a day, rooms have solid doors and basically no ventilation — and no air conditioning, the Board noted.
The temperature in an ESH unit that contained a heat-sensitive person at the Otis Bantum facility on Rikers Saturday was 91.6 degrees, according to the Board of Correction. On Sunday, the temperature in an Otis Bantum ESH unit with two heat-sensitive people was 90.5.
The Department of Correction does not consider ESH to be “punitive segregation” — being held alone as punishment — and says all punitive segregation units are air-conditioned.
But the Legal Aid Society has an ongoing court case against the city, Benjamin v. Brann, in which they argue that “the conditions of the ‘new’ restrictive housing units are equivalent to those of ‘punitive segregation.’” The public defenders contend that people there should be subject to the same court-ordered cooling plan for people in punitive segregation, according to court filings.
But new heat plans are needed for the entire system, not just those in punitive segregation and other restrictive housing, Lander said.
“The short term need is an improved heat emergency plan, because there are going to be a bunch more heat emergencies,” he predicted.
A Correction Department spokesperson said the agency shares “the same priority” as the Board of Correction.
“The department has already been in touch with the board about their concerns, we have already resolved or are immediately addressing many of them, and are evaluating where additional improvements can be made,” said spokesperson Peter Thorne, noting that additional fans were being installed.
‘It’s Hard to Sleep’
The heat is a concern even in the unit for inmates with medical conditions in air-conditioned housing, according to one Rikers detainee.
Daniel Rice, 42, who uses a wheelchair and catheter, said the dayroom “is like an oven” inside the North Infirmary Command unit on Rikers.
The sleep area is also sweltering, he added.
“The AC ain’t strong enough,” Rice said in a phone call to THE CITY from Rikers. “It’s hard to sleep because it’s so hot.”
Rice says an officer ordered he keep his shirt on when he went outside for recreation on Saturday.
Jail officials had said they would allow all inmates to take their shirts off to cool down during the heatwave.
Rice, known on the street as “Capone,” has been in jail since January 2017 and faces a murder charge. He maintains he’s innocent.
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