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Could air conditioning help prevent extreme violence in prisons? Research suggests so

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

To keep our cool this summer, most of us are probably choosing to spend more time in air conditioned spaces. But many people in prisons don't have that option. The U.S. Department of Justice is investigating prisons in some southern states, trying to get to the root of persistent violence. And as Grant Blankenship of Georgia Public Broadcasting explains, they might take a look at the heat.

GRANT BLANKENSHIP, BYLINE: In a cell phone video shared by a Georgia prison rights activist, a group of mostly shirtless men are bent over a big black cart.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: I just came in here. It ain't been nothing but 30 seconds.

BLANKENSHIP: As the camera pulls back, you see it's an ice cooler parked on a prison block.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: It's been one minute. How much ice left?

BLANKENSHIP: Dana Smallwood Linton says, like these men, this is how her son is meant to stay cool in his prison.

DANA SMALLWOOD LINTON: It's 90 degrees inside. How long do you think that ice is lasting?

BLANKENSHIP: Only a quarter of Georgia's prisons are fully air conditioned. The others are only partially cooled, maybe in a single dormitory. Linton's son is at Phillips State Prison, one of two in the Georgia system with no air conditioning at all. And while Linton says that's tough enough for her 22-year-old son, his roommate is 80.

LINTON: You know, he doesn't - he very rarely leaves his room because it's so exhausting for him to even walk from his room to the shower.

BLANKENSHIP: The direct threat to physical health from heat is well-documented, but prison heat presents another danger too - homicides. Phillips State Prison saw its first deaths this year in July, typically the hottest month of the year in Georgia. Two of those three July deaths were ruled homicides. That pattern of homicides peaking on the hottest days repeats itself across the Georgia prison system at least as far back as 2015.

Anita Mukherjee is an assistant professor in the business school at the University of Wisconsin. She says that Georgia pattern mirrors what she found in a Mississippi study.

ANITA MUKHERJEE: Yeah. So the question that we started out with is, what is the effect of, let's say, a hot day versus a moderate temperature day on acts of violence in prison.

BLANKENSHIP: Mukherjee and her co-researcher, Nicholas Sanders of Cornell University, used some sophisticated math to isolate heat from some 52 other variables in eight years of data from the Mississippi Department of Corrections.

MUKHERJEE: What generates a response in violence is days averaging 80 degrees or more.

BLANKENSHIP: On a day like that, Mukherjee says it could easily top 100 degrees inside a prison when there's no air conditioning or places to cool down. That problem is concentrated at prisons in 13 states in the South and Southwest. Mukherjee and Sanders say when a day in prison is that hot, expect about 20% more acts of extreme violence than on a temperate day. Annually, that's about 4,000 violent acts in prisons across the country.

BURLING CAIN: Corrections means correct deviant behavior. It doesn't mean lock and feed, torture and torment.

BLANKENSHIP: During the long career of Mississippi Department of Corrections Commissioner Burling Cain, federal courts have found that even just the threat of illness and violence from heat is a civil rights violation.

CAIN: And so then, pretty soon it violates the Eighth Amendment, you could say.

BLANKENSHIP: The Eighth Amendment to the Constitution protects against cruel and unusual punishment. The federal Department of Justice has been looking for Eighth Amendment violations in Southern prisons, including those run by Cain, for years.

CAIN: Yeah, they've already said it about it being hot, hot, hot. We know it's hot.

BLANKENSHIP: And Cain says that's a problem for correctional officers, too.

CAIN: Well, you know, some people can't stand that heat anyway, and they don't want to work in it.

BLANKENSHIP: Prisons across the South struggle to keep even a minimally safe number of correctional officers. Georgia's staffing is down by nearly 40%. One hundred-degree workplaces don't help. So Cain is installing air conditioning in Mississippi's infamous Parchman Prison.

CAIN: But the main thing is the violence is down. So that means it a safer place to work, so that's good.

BLANKENSHIP: His aim is to do the same for the entire Mississippi prison system.

For NPR News, I'm Grant Blankenship in Macon, Ga. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Grant Blankenship
Grant came to public media after a career spent in newspaper photojournalism. As an all platform journalist he seeks to wed the values of public radio storytelling and the best of photojournalism online.
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