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Massachusetts has a responsibility to maintain safe conditions in its public facilities. Our Department of Public Health issues mandates to protect those housed in public facilities from dangerous living conditions, including exposure to extreme temperatures — of which we’ve seen record-setting highs and lows this year. However, DPH regulations on high temperatures in prisons do not apply in the summer, from June 15 to September 15. As summer heat waves worsen, these regulations need to be extended to cover summer-time extremes.
We’ve all been dreading the extremely hot days and hoping the evenings will provide some respite. This year, Boston had the hottest summer night-time temperatures since record-keeping began in 1936. In our role as earth scientists, we seek to understand trends in the climate and their societal consequences: We find that the 2.5 degree Fahrenheit increase in Boston summer night-time temperatures is consistent with the global pattern of rising night-time temperatures. This trend is alarming, as heat waves prove most deadly for people unable to cool down at night: In the last 30 years, the leading cause of weather-related death in the US has been exposure to heat. We have a moral imperative to draw attention to the inadequacy of the temperature guidelines set by the DPH, for they become more dangerous as temperatures rise.
Although nursing homes that house the elderly are mandated by the DPH to keep safe temperatures year-round, such guidelines are non-existent for the 9,000 individuals incarcerated during the increasingly hot summer months. Our incarcerated population is diverse in their ages and their reasons for incarceration. Many are held as they await trial for immigration-related offenses, or cannot afford the paltry bail that would free them, or are minors or elderly.
While there is no year-round regulation on acceptable temperature for people incarcerated in Massachusetts, the 1966 Animal Welfare Act requires that housing facilities for monkeys not exceed 85 degrees for more than four consecutive hours. An ongoing lawsuit alleges that the Cedar Junction prison in Norfolk allowed cell temperatures to reach 120 degrees without ventilation this summer, with prisoners fainting and suffering heat strokes. This is appalling. If the allegations hold true, even monkeys destined for research are afforded better rights than our fellow human beings.
It is common sense that prisons must be required to maintain safe temperatures in summer as well as in winter. As we have seen in the overheating deaths of Michael Jefferson in Illinois and Lester Irby in Washington, D.C., we cannot rely on the goodwill of prisons to keep prisoners safe. In 1999, then-New Jersey Governor Whitman vetoed an air-conditioning expenditure, stating “Air conditioning for inmates is not considered a priority,” days before Atari wa’Haki and Vital Prince died of exposure to heat in a Trenton prison. In Texas, a 2011 heat wave killed at least 10 prisoners and culminated in a prolonged and costly legal fight over access to air-conditioning. Still today, 75 percent of Texas prisons remain without air-conditioning.
The DPH and Department of Correction can save time and taxpayer money by adopting humane standards now, instead of waiting to fight lengthy lawsuits as the Texas Department of Criminal Justice has. The people of Massachusetts should tell the DPH to do its job and apply consistent and humane temperature regulations to all of the vulnerable populations housed across our public facilities.
Marena Lin ’11 is a 6th-year Ph.D. student in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences. Eric M. Stansifer is a 6th-year Ph.D. student in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
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