Editor’s note: This story contains references to suicide. If you or someone you know may be considering suicide, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or dial 988. Local resources include the Mississippi Department of Mental Health DMH Helpline at 1-877-210-8513.
After 121 summers in the Mississippi Delta, the state’s oldest and largest prison is getting air conditioning.
Mississippi Department of Corrections Commissioner Burl Cain said 48 air conditioning units have been installed at the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman buildings so far, covering 40% of the prison population.
The process is expected to be complete in the spring, and then air conditioning will be installed at the state’s other prisons, Central Mississippi Correctional Facility and Southern Mississippi Correctional Institution.
“It feels good to get it done,” Cain said in an interview with Mississippi Today. “It’s just the time to do it.”
Cell blocks at Parchman, located in the scalding fields of the Delta, are made out of concrete. A U.S. Department of Justice report about poor conditions at Parchman said temperatures inside the prison sometimes reach up to 145 degrees. With air conditioning, Cain said, the goal is to get temperatures to a comfortable 78 degrees.
Multiple courts have ruled incarceration in extremely hot or cold temperatures is unconstitutional, said Wanda Bertram, a spokesperson for the Prison Policy Initiative. But despite court rulings, there isn’t a national standard for managing extreme temperatures in jails, she said.
A 2019 report by the Prison Policy Initiative found 13 southern states including Mississippi lacked central air in their prisons. Years later, most southern states still lack air conditioning in their prisons, Bertram said.
It’s often older prisons like Parchman that are least likely to have air conditioning throughout their facilities, she said, and that is often because infrastructure needs have piled up. However, there are some newer facilities that don’t have air conditioning.
“States are choosing not to provide this, often or not,” Bertram said.
Eastern Mississippi Correctional Facility, which is privately operated for MDOC, has a central air conditioning system, including in all housing units, contractor Management and Training Corporation said in a statement.
Cain said the Parchman air conditioning project is $650,000 from MDOC’s budget. He also expects to use American Rescue Plan Act funds.
The state prisons commissioner also sees adding air conditioning as a way to address issues raised by the federal government and attract people to work in the state’s prison system.
In an April 2022 investigation report, the Department of Justice listed high temperatures as one of many issues that exist at Parchman. The report talks about extreme heat in restrictive housing units, which is also known as solitary confinement.
One of the report’s examples about conditions in restrictive housing is about a man who had been on death row for about 20 years and had no indication of mental health issues. In February 2021, he began expressing suicidal ideation and the week before his death by suicide, he had been seeking relief from excessive heat in his unit.
Investigators found during the winter time, prison staff turned up the unit’s temperature and supervisors said to keep the heat on even after the man and others asked to turn it down, showing “deliberate indifference” and “unnecessary and wanton infliction of pain” in violation of the Eighth Amendment, according to the report.
An investigation report found temperatures that week reached 124.5 degrees, and temperature logs from MDOC for the same timeframe showed temperatures between 95 and 145.1 degrees, according to the report.
“Incarcerated persons in prolonged restrictive housing in egregious conditions at Parchman can and do suffer mental harm, and this harm is evidenced by self-injurious behavior,” the DOJ report states.
People with chronic medical conditions such as heart disease, mental illness, poor blood circulation and obesity are more vulnerable to extreme heat, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Certain medications and old age can also affect a person’s ability to regulate their body temperature.
Heat-related illnesses are preventable, according to the CDC, but if untreated they can result in potentially fatal conditions such as heat stroke and dehydration.
One of the remedies the Justice Department recommended to fix constitutional violations is to ensure sanitary and safe conditions, including proper temperature regulation, in restrictive housing. Air conditioning isn’t specified as a specific remedy.
In addition to addressing extreme temperatures at Parchman, Cain said installing air conditioning can help recruit people to work in the prison system and promote a safer environment.
Adequate staffing is another recommendation by the Justice Department to allow for better supervision, safety and protection from harm.
The Department of Corrections is looking to hire 600 people, Cain said.
Correctional officers and case managers received a 10% pay increase earlier this month, with a starting pay of about $17 an hour or $35,500 with benefits. When he first became commissioner in 2020, starting pay was $14 an hour.
“We’re going to have to work to get there,” Cain said about completing air conditioning installation, staff recruitment and other ongoing projects through the corrections department.