‘Sleeping in a ball of sweat’: As COVID-19 stalks Florida’s inmates, so does another plague

“They are dying in the heat,” said the distraught mother of an inmate at Dade Correctional Institution south of Miami. “What have we done to deserve this. … How is it possible, knowing how hot it is here?”

“We have gone an entire week without a set of showers ⁠— two were turned off last week because one of them wouldn’t turn off, so they just turned the water off and have not been back to fix it,” wrote an inmate at Avon Park Correctional Institution, a prison in Highlands County, in an email shared with the Miami Herald.

“Plus the water temp is too hot to stand under and they won’t turn it down.”

By not air conditioning prisons, state Sen. Jeff Brandes said, Florida is failing not only the inmates, but the corrections officers who work there.
By not air conditioning prisons, state Sen. Jeff Brandes said, Florida is failing not only the inmates, but the corrections officers who work there.

As temperatures in Florida soar into the 90s, accounts by inmates and their loved ones, shared with the Herald on condition of anonymity, provide a glimpse of the condition of inmates housed in overcrowded prisons without proper ventilation.

Despite the state being among the hottest in the country, only 18 of its 50 prisons have air conditioning. Every summer the sweltering and squalid heat increases health risks and raises tensions between officers and inmates.

But this year inmates are fighting a battle on another front: COVID-19.

As of Sunday, 3,647 inmates and 1,065 prison staffers had tested positive for COVID and 6,064 inmate tests were still pending. Thirty-two people in the system had died of the virus — all of them inmates.

“With them having to wear masks, it makes it 10 times worse because they have such a hard time breathing,” said a Dade inmate’s fiancée.

She said the unbearable conditions don’t allow her fiancé to sleep for more than a couple of hours at night.

The mother of an inmate at Avon Park Correctional said fans move around the air but do not cool it, making the prison stifling in the summer.
The mother of an inmate at Avon Park Correctional said fans move around the air but do not cool it, making the prison stifling in the summer.

“He wakes up in a pool of sweat and sometimes water blisters from the heat.”

The Florida Department of Corrections said in a statement to the Herald that its “primary goal is ensuring the health, safety and security of FDC staff and the inmates in our care and custody.”

“Every institution is audited and compliant with standards from the American Correctional Association regarding ventilation and HVAC systems,” the FDC said.

FDC also said that its COVID testing priorities “closely align” with those set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the state’s Health Department.

Improvements get the ax

One line item in Florida’s $92 billion budget was aimed at addressing issues such as the unbearable heat: $2 million to create a modernization master plan. The item got the ax earlier this month when Gov. Ron DeSantis vetoed $1 billion from the state budget in order to address COVID-19-related expenses.

The money was sought by lawmakers who hoped to eventually upgrade the state’s aging facilities with improvements like air conditioning. A private contractor was to use the $2 million in order to create a multi-year master plan to be submitted to the Department of Corrections by June 2021.

The project was a priority of Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, who says the crumbling correctional facilities across Florida are “failing” the state’s nearly 95,000 inmates — and its corrections officers. The oldest of the state’s prisons (Union Correctional) is more than 100 years old.

Brandes, who chairs the Senate appropriations subcommittee on criminal justice issues, said he has researched prisons in places like Alabama, which, despite well-publicized problems with corrections, has modernized facilities in a way similar to what lawmakers proposed.

Dade Correctional Institution.
Dade Correctional Institution.

“Most people would change jobs if their job didn’t include air conditioning every day,” he told the Herald earlier this month. “Environmental issues play a major role on the psychological impact of corrections officers and those incarcerated.”

Florida has had to resort to $1,000 bonuses to attract staffers.

One woman, whose son is incarcerated at Tomoka Correctional Institution near Daytona Beach, said before coronavirus, he worked at the Prison Rehabilitative Industries and Diversified Enterprises Inc., a St. Petersburg-based manufacturing company also known as PRIDE and staffed by state prisoners. It got him out of the sweltering dorm. He also volunteered in the laundry rooms at night, which gave him the ability to move around, and he used to spend his weekends at the chapel, where there was air conditioning.

She shared a notice that inmates received from Hope Gartman, the department’s director of operations, which said facilities will now post information about how to identify a heat-related illness. It promised a seasonal menu of foods that can be cooked without using as much heat, inspections to the ventilation systems and the availability of cool drinking water.

She said throughout his 15 years in prison he usually didn’t complain to her, but he has mentioned heat “a lot more this year.”

In the two-person cells, the inmates have just a tiny window for air circulation and don’t have the luxury of showering in the middle of the night to cool off, she said.

She said she wishes the men could have an electric fan or some sort of other comforts.

State Rep. Dianne Hart, a Democrat from Tampa, told the Herald that she has been receiving similar complaints from inmates’ relatives.

“Just as hot as they are in the summer, many of them are equally cold in the winter,” she said.

Hart said she will be pushing for legislation to be enacted that would get air conditioning in at least some of the facilities.

Carrie Boyd, policy counsel of the civil rights nonprofit Southern Poverty Law Center, said that over the years while certain state representatives and senators have tried to improve prison conditions, the bills are hard even to introduce due to opposition from people in leadership positions, including, historically, the governor and House speaker.

“We are outraged and sickened,” she said. “This is cruel and inhumane how these prisoners are being treated and it cannot stand in our society.

“It feels like no one is listening while people are just dying.”

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‘Ball of sweat’

At Avon Park, 164 inmates and 25 staffers had tested positive for COVID-19 as of Sunday and 206 more inmate tests were pending.

The mother of an inmate who is among those who tested positive told the Herald that after her son was diagnosed with the virus, prison staff put him in solitary confinement. At first, she said, he could shower only twice a week, was not given a toothbrush for the first three days and went 11 days in the same underwear.

When that changed, they did not give him any towel. He had to air-dry his body as best as he could after a shower and if he washed his clothes, he was forced to put those wet clothes back on, she said.

She said her son has been “sleeping in a ball of sweat” for days now due to the heat and lack of ventilation.

“Animal shelters have air conditioning but human beings can’t?” she said. “That’s just not fair.”

The FDC in a statement said that “non-air-conditioned dorms use some form of climate control to mitigate heat, such as fans or exhaust systems which create a high level of air exchange to cool the building.”

The department also said that the dorms have additional fans such as ceiling or wall-mounted circulation fans. But the mother of an Avon Park inmate contends that those fans just move the air around without cooling the room.

“The other day my son thought he got heat stroke just from being in the dorm,” she said.

“Almost everything about the department of corrections is torturous. The people who come out of these prisons? They come out traumatized and worse.”

An inmate at the same facility wrote in an email shared with the Herald that prisoners used to have electrical outlets for fans and other devices but those were taken out.

“The officers have AC and a desk fan in their office while we have nothing,” he wrote.

State Rep. Dianne Hart said she will be introducing legislation to install air conditioning in at least some of the Florida prisons that currently lack it.
State Rep. Dianne Hart said she will be introducing legislation to install air conditioning in at least some of the Florida prisons that currently lack it.

Similar scenes are playing out at Dade Correctional, according to an inmate’s fiancée. The program buildings have air conditioning but they are shut down due to the virus and all the inmates can do is sit on their bunks in their crowded dorms all day.

She said that although Dade allows inmates to use electric razors, they are prohibited from having battery-powered fans because those are classified as a security risk.

The mother of another Dade inmate described how after 50 inmates tested positive for COVID, they were crammed together in the library to keep them away from everyone else. They weren’t allowed to change and were forced to wear clothes soaked with sweat.

As of Sunday, 55 inmates and 107 staffers at Dade had tested positive for the virus.

“They are people and we love them,” said the mother of the Avon Park inmate who tested positive for COVID.

“They’re [the FDC] literally killing us every day with what they do to people we love and care about.”

McClatchy Washington bureau’s Kevin G. Hall contributed to this story.