08/28/2012 10:35 pm ET Updated Oct 28, 2012

Cruel and Unusual Prisoner Punishment

~Thousands of prisoners are being held in inhumane conditions nationwide ~

If you are reading this anywhere in America you know firsthand that this summer has been a record-breaking sizzler. We could be living through the hottest summer season ever.

Think about what you've done to keep cool. You've turned on your air conditioner or (if you don't have one) maybe you've gone to the movies to cool off. You probably drink lots of ice cold beverages or jump into a swimming pool or cool shower. Perhaps, like my friend Lester, you drench a kitchen towel, twist it into a U-shape and plop it in the freezer to hang around your neck when working outside.

Well, imagine you couldn't do any of those things.

Imagine you were isolated in a 10 foot by 12 foot space with no windows to open up to catch a cooling breeze. You had no fan, no relief and no escape.

That's what countless prisoners in America have had to endure this long, hot summer. In the past their situation has proved deadly.

In Texas, a lawsuit was filed after ten inmates died from heat-related causes last summer. All were held in cell blocks without air-conditioning. The suit, filed by the Texas Civil Rights Project, focuses on what was called the "wrongful death" of inmate Larry McCollum.

Even though the federal courts have ruled that temperatures over 90 degrees violate the constitutional rights of an inmate, the Hutchins State jail in Dallas where McCollum died of heat stroke registered an indoor heat index of almost 130 degrees. After he collapsed last July and was taken to the hospital doctors found McCollum's body temperature still registered over 109 degrees! The autopsy on the 58 year old prisoner listed his cause of death as living "in a hot environment without air conditioning." One unnamed Texas corrections official was quoted saying about his prisoners, "I'm supposed to be watching them, I'm not supposed to be boiling them in their cells."

It's not just Texas where inmates are suffering and, in my opinion, being subjected to cruel and unusual punishment. In sunny Florida only ten of the 140 state-run prisons have air conditioning. But in those facilities with air the cool sections are limited to just a few sections. It is somehow ironic that in a state where they have prison classes to teach inmates how to install and maintain air conditioners there aren't any in the vast majority of their oppressively hot cell blocks.

In Chicago, this summer's life-threatening heat is the worst they've seen in more than a century. In the lock-ups that do have air conditioners the units are reported to be breaking down from almost constant use. Add to that an outbreak of bedbugs within the system this year and both inmates and prison personnel are left to face a duel threat -- unsanitary conditions and heat exhaustion. The union representing prison guards says the situation has created a condition of, "Extreme fatigue and dangerous conditions... a recipe for disaster." It's a reminder that it is not just prisoners who are affected by the extreme heat it's also prison personnel. (At a prison near Rosharon, Texas earlier this summer a 56 year old corrections official fainted and the hospital ruled it was from heat exhaustion.)

In Iowa, cooling systems have kept many of the 8,300 inmates comfortable this scorching summer but taken together the Mount Pleasant and Clarinda Correctional Facilities and the Anamosa State Prison has close to 1,900 inmates who have no air conditioning at all. In the prison at Mitchellville where another 547 inmates live there is no cool air in any of the older sections of the complex.

Imagine having to endure this summer trapped in a small, confined, almost airless space. We have strict laws against leaving a child or an animal in a hot, enclosed car. Put aside for a moment the crime committed that caused the prisoner to be incarcerated and ask yourself: Shouldn't we also care about human beings confined in stifling, life-threatening conditions? Of course we should.

Officials in states across the nation say there simply isn't enough money in their budgets to retrofit all prisons with central air conditioning. So for now, they combat the threat of possible death-by-heat by catering, first, to those inmates with health problems (like diabetes and high blood pressure) and, second, to those locked up in the hottest sections of the prison. Electric fans, ice and water are being handed out to prisoners across the nation much more frequently than in years gone by.

I couldn't find a reported death of an inmate from heat-exhaustion so far this summer. But, that doesn't mean some prisoners aren't still being held in inhumane conditions. Who is out there taking the temperature inside every prison and making sure it doesn't go over the court mandated ninety degrees? Nobody, that's who.

Look, I understand there are some people who think that once a criminal is convicted they should lose all their constitutional rights. In other words, if life is tough on the inside, so be it. But it's never been the American tradition to treat our own people worse than we would treat an animal. If climate change means every summer will be increasingly brutal we better figure out a way to fix this or there could be a flood of wrongful death suits to pay.

Diane Dimond can be reached through her web site: or at