Researchers recently found that inmate self-harm in solitary confinement at Louisiana state prisons increases as the heat index rises, raising concern that high temperatures are affecting inmates' well-being in dorms without air-conditioning, especially those held in some of the most restrictive housing units. 

Though a years-long lawsuit over extremely hot conditions on Louisiana's death row — a unit that houses about 75 inmates — has neared a settlement that includes accommodations to help keep prisoners there cool, the unofficial start of summer this Memorial Day weekend marks what can be the most grueling, and dangerous, season for the thousands more in prison, including about 1,400 in other solitary confinement units. 

In restrictive housing or 'cellblocks,' where prisoners are confined to a cell for at least 22 hours a day, researchers with the national nonprofit Vera Institute of Justice found that the average number of self-harm incidents per month was much higher when the average heat index was above 100 degrees: in June, July and August. This data, presented in Vera Institute of Justice's Safe Alternatives to Segregation report released earlier this month, was compiled from 2015 and 2016. Corrections officials have noted the number of prisoners living in these conditions, which they call restrictive housing typically used for discipline, have dropped significantly since then.

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The Vera Institute of Justice found a correlation between high temperatures and incidents of self-harm in units of solitary confinement at Louisiana's state prisons in 2015 and 2016.

Mental health providers and nurses also told researches they noticed more frequent suicide watches and self-harm behaviors in the summer months, "which they attributed to physical discomfort, psychological deterioration, and an attempt to exit the segregation tier to consult the psychiatrist in a part of the prison where there is air-conditioning," the report says.

The report also found that unbearable heat interferes with the mental health care prisoners receive, as staff are deterred from conducting full rounds in sweltering conditions. The report references other studies — not focused on prisons — that have found "significant relationships between heat exposures, psychological distress, aggression, and different forms of violence."

Most living quarters at state prisons have no air-conditioning. Advocates and attorneys point to the segregation or isolation tiers as the most dangerous, where ventilation is more limited and inmate movement is restricted.

"We're not dealing with heat here, we're dealing with extreme heat," said Mercedes Montagnes, the executive director of the Promise of Justice Initiative, a New Orleans-based criminal justice nonprofit. "In this day and age, it's unconscionable."

Montagnes led the litigation for the death row heat lawsuit, which claimed high heat indexes exacerbated by death row facilities created unconstitutional confinement, putting ailing inmates at risk of serious injury or death. Her initial filings claimed temperatures in the inmates' cells often reached well above 100 degrees. 

"The death row lawsuit is a drop in the bucket," Montagnes said, referencing the hundreds of other inmates in solitary units. "These are places that heat up very quickly and they are boxed in."

But Department of Corrections spokesman Ken Pastorick explained that dormitories without air-conditioning, even restrictive housing, were built to allow ventilation without air-conditioning. He also said high-quality fans are in all prison living spaces and inmates are provided cold water and ice.

There are seven men's dormitories with air-conditioning across all state prisons, Pastorick said, and all women's dorms have air-conditioning. He also said all prison infirmaries and almost all cafeterias are air-conditioned. The department's policy on heat pathology outlines precautions to take from May through October, especially once heat indexes reach 88 degrees. They include identifying heat-sensitive inmates, providing additional showers and wet towels as well as limiting outdoor work and increasing ventilation and fans when possible. 

Pastorick also pointed out that heat is not an issue unique to prisons, as many people work outside in Louisiana summers and some live without air-conditioning. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, 94 percent of all homes in the country's hot-humid region in 2015, which includes all of Louisiana, had air-conditioning equipment, either central or window/wall units. 

But for the few people living without air-conditioning, Montagnes said it's not comparable to life behind bars, as free people have the ability to go to a public building with cool air — prisoners, especially in confinement, cannot. She noted that almost all animal shelters in Louisiana have air-conditioning. 

While the Vera report recommended the Department of Corrections decrease the use of solitary housing and make all facilities air-conditioned, they also outlined some short-term changes, like providing clinicians an air-conditioned room for patient consultations, prioritizing air-conditioning housing for the medically vulnerable and designating a cool space for corrections officers to take breaks. 

Corrections Secretary Jimmy LeBlanc said he is looking into the more short-term fixes, calling them reasonable. 

"We're doing everything that we can (to have) a good living environment," LeBlanc told the Advocate. "I wish I could air-condition the entire prison, but again, it's a resource issue. … Our officers have to work in the same environment. But we are going to make some adjustments."

While Montagnes is glad to hear progress is in the works, she said Louisiana needs to prioritize these issues. 

"The idea that this is an extremely expensive thing to do is not true,"  Montagnes said. "Compared against health care costs, it might be cheaper to provide A/C than not."

Louisiana's neighbor Texas has, in recently years, added air-conditioning to some state prisons — mostly forced through a serious of lawsuits, including ones over inmates' heat-related deaths. In one case, officials estimated providing air-conditioning at a College Station prison would cost more than $20 million, but in actuality, it cost about $4 million, according to The Texas Tribune. And while Louisiana has not had a trail of heat-related deaths in prisons jump-start such changes like in Texas, Montagnes said she worries heat could be contributing to in-custody deaths, even if it's not listed as the official cause.

But Pastorick said in the last three years, no inmates have died of heat-related causes in Louisiana. Pastorick said corrections officials reviewed causes of death for heat stroke, heat exhaustion or other heat-related issues. 

Either way, the heat issue needs to be promptly addressed, inmate activists say, especially as climate researchers predict heat indexes will rise in Louisiana in coming years and the prison population continues to age.

"We really worry about people who are locked up in those cells in the extreme heat who don't have the ability to leave the cell," said Katie Schwartzmann, the ACLU of Louisiana's legal director, also currently suing the corrections department over poor conditions at a Homer prison. "You really are at the mercy at the staff. … It's dangerous."


Follow Grace Toohey on Twitter, @grace_2e.