The freezing weather of the past two weeks made it uncomfortably – and dangerously – cold inside a number of Pennsylvania prisons and jails. Here are just a few examples:
So far this winter, the Prison Society’s Helpline has received 20 reports like these about inadequate heating in prisons and jails throughout Pennsylvania. Even more complaints have come through our volunteer prison monitors.
Poorly functioning prison heating and cooling systems, combined with a lack of accountability for maintaining climate control, have allowed these problems to persist for years at a cost to incarcerated people’s health. “Incarcerated people are not able to leave extreme heat or extreme cold the way most people on the outside world might,” says the Prison Society’s director of prison monitoring, Noah Barth. “Extended exposure can result in serious health consequences or even death, especially for people who are already medically vulnerable.”
A history of “ice cold” conditions in Dauphin County Prison
Reports of dangerously cold prisons in Pennsylvania date back many years. Incarcerated people in Dauphin County Prison complained in 2019 that it was so cold inside that guards walked around in their winter coats and that they could see their own breath. Two years later, Jamal Crummel was hospitalized after developing symptoms of hypothermia in the prison. When he was discharged, he was sent back to the prison, which other incarcerated people described at the time as being “ice cold.” A week later, he died in his cell after developing hypothermia.
In the aftermath of Crummel’s death, county officials admitted that the heating system struggled to keep the prison uniformly warm, and that warm air often didn’t circulate sufficiently into cells. “There are parts that are really, really warm and there are parts that are really, really cold,” said Dauphin County District Attorney Fran Chardo.
Dauphin County has since made some improvements to the prison heating system, but the power outage on January 14 shows that cold conditions remain a concern. During the outage, the Prison Society’s volunteer convener for the Dauphin County Prison, Destiny Brown, received five complaints from incarcerated people or their families about the temperature inside. Four of them said it was too cold, and the fifth said it was too hot.
“They were scared,” Destiny says. “They were cold, and they felt like they were unattended.”
In a meeting of the Dauphin County Prison Board on Wednesday, county officials said that the temperature was checked in several areas of the prison while the power was out and found to be between 68 and 70 degrees. They did not specify whether any readings were taken inside cells, however.
Pleading for help
Dauphin County Prison isn’t the only county jail with recurring climate control issues. “County prisons, unfortunately, are often in states of serious disrepair,” says Noah, noting that some of the facilities date back to the 1800s. The crumbling infrastructure is compounded by a lack of federal, state, and local laws specifying safe temperatures to be maintained in prisons. That means it’s essentially up to prison officials to determine whether the climate is tolerable inside, with only oversight organizations like the Prison Society–and periodic lawsuits–to hold them accountable.
It’s not just a problem during winter. Many prisons, especially county jails, lack effective cooling systems, putting incarcerated people at risk of excessive heat during warmer seasons. One incarcerated person wrote to the Prison Society about sweltering conditions in SCI Dallas last summer. “It was torture,” he wrote. “You can’t sleep, sweating, just laying in bed.”
Incarcerated people are also at the mercy of prison staff to get what they need to cope with these conditions–like thermal underwear during the winter or an extra fan during the summer– but staff are not always sympathetic to their concerns. “While it is our hope that staff in the facilities will do everything in their power to restore heat and to accommodate those experiencing low temperatures, we unfortunately have encountered innumerable examples of staff not adequately responding to urgent needs of people in prison,” Noah says.
As the chronically cold conditions in prison persist, incarcerated people are pleading for help. One person with a breathing condition who wrote the Prison Society from SCI Laurel Highlands put it simply: “Winter is here, and I just want proper heat and air circulation.”