One year after air conditioning installation began at Mississippi’s oldest and largest prison, incarcerated people in the State Penitentiary at Parchman’s Unit 29 and other prisons are still without relief from sweltering heat as funding dictates when air conditioning can be installed.
“You got to picture how hot it is. We’re in nothing but brick and steel,” Andrico Pegues, who is incarcerated in Unit 29, said by phone. “Everything outside is double in here.”
This comes as the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency issued an extreme heat warning that will last through Friday. The heat index – how the combined air temperature and humidity feels to the human body – is expected to reach up to 115 degrees in the Delta, Jackson area and parts of south Mississippi.
Mississippi Corrections Commissioner Burl Cain estimated in April that it would take a year and a half to bring air conditioning to Unit 29, parts of the Central Mississippi Correctional Facility, South Mississippi Correctional Institute and other facilities.
He said much of that work is connected to funding. Installation of 48 AC units to cover 75% of Parchman was done using federal American Rescue Plan Act funds.
“We’re doing everything humanly possible to protect both inmates and corrections officers and we’re using the same options people in the free world have who don’t have air conditioning or can’t afford air conditioning,” Cain said in a Tuesday statement.
The department’s plan is to use industrial fans in housing units and give ice, ice water and electrolyte drinks to inmates and prison staff to provide relief from the heat, an MDOC spokesperson said.
Pegues said those in Unit 29 have been told they will get ice coolers three times a day, but he said that doesn’t always happen. People can also use fans available for purchase from the commissary, but those can be expensive.
A 2022 U.S. Department of Justice report about unconstitutional conditions at Parchman found the highest temperature recorded in Unit 29 was 145.1 degrees. Temperature logs showed temperatures over 100 degrees every day during a period of reported complaints and during two-thirds of all the dates logged, according to the report.
Nicole Montagano, Pegues’s fiance, has connected with people who also have loved ones in the state’s prisons through the group Mississippi Prison Reform Advocates.
“Not having air conditioning isn’t inhumane, but the inability to regulate temperature is,” she said.
Extreme heat can have health consequences.
Those 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. Some medications and old age can also affect a person’s ability to regulate their body temperature.
If untreated, heat related illnesses can result in potentially fatal conditions such as heat stroke and dehydration, according to the CDC. Heat stroke can occur when internal body temperature reaches 106 degrees.
A report by the Prison Policy Initiative found associations between the number of prison deaths following days of high temperatures during the summer. In the South, there was a 1.3% increase in the number of deaths in state prisons as a result of exposure to extreme days of heat between 2001 and 2019.
Within a week’s span in 2020, five inmates were killed during a string of violent outbreaks at Unit 29 and other MDOC facilities. Gov. Tate Reeves vowed in his first State of the State to close the entire unit.
But at least half of Unit 29’s 12 buildings have remained open, and Cain said in a previous interview that remaining buildings have been renovated and are now being used for housing. Because some buildings were closed, inmates were moved to other facilities.
Pegues, who has been at Unit 29 since November, was sent there from another facility due to a rules violation. He looks forward to leaving within the coming weeks. He’s serving an 18-year sentence for armed robbery and will be eligible for parole in 2027, according to Montagano.
During hot days in Unit 29, Pegues feels irritable and said the heat affects him mentally, too. There’s also the smell of sweat and body odor, especially if people aren’t able to take frequent showers.
There have already been 100-degree days in Unit 29, he said, and on one of those days he remembers seeing the temperature high on the television.
“No way, we’re going to die in here,” Pegues recalls thinking.