Many of New Jersey’s prisoners suffered through stifling temperatures this summer, with a third housed in non-air-conditioned units that reached as high as 94 degrees, a new report by the state Office of the Corrections Ombudsperson found.
The watchdog agency said 3,500 incarcerated people lived in cells without any air conditioning, and 3,000 of the state’s roughly 10,000 corrections officers were assigned to those units. Most of the non-air conditioned beds are housed at three of the state’s nine prisons: East Jersey State Prison in Union County, Bayside State Prison in Cumberland County, and Garden State Youth Correctional Facility in Burlington County. The latter houses inmates ages 18 to 30.
Corrections Ombudsperson Terry Schuster and Assistant Ombudsperson Kristin King lauded the Department of Corrections for using the resources it had to provide inmates with ice and fans, but called on lawmakers to prioritize investing in the prisons’ heating and cooling systems.
“Because people detained in prison facilities cannot leave of their own accord and have limited control over their movement, possessions, and environment, the state assumes a responsibility for their humane treatment, including a responsibility to protect them from potential harms associated with extended exposure to heat and cold,” the report said. “The state also carries a responsibility to protect its correctional police officers from the occupational hazards and safety concerns presented by high heat.”
DOC spokesman Dan Sperrazza said officials increased access to showers, fluids, and ice to mitigate the heat and were working cooperatively with the ombudsperson to improve conditions.
“We continue to work with all stakeholders to address the needs of the population and staff to ensure appropriate and fair treatment is provided to those within our custody,” he said in an emailed statement on Thursday.
According to the report, incarcerated people living in non-air-conditioned units described conditions in July and August as “unbearable,” “scorching,” “beyond hot,” and “like hell.” One person said the heat was so suffocating that some prisoners tried to get in trouble so they’d be sent to air-conditioned “restorative housing” units used for disciplinary purposes.
While men were allowed to wear sleeveless tops or go shirtless in their units, female prisoners did not have the same options, according to the report. The DOC told the ombudsperson’s office it would look into alternative clothing options for women.
The watchdog report said some facilities gave prisoners ice for free. Others charged them for it or only provided it once during any given corrections officer’s shift. The ombudsperson recommended prison staff buy additional ice machines and give inmates in non-air-conditioned units free ice at least two times a day in the summer.
Most prisons had industrial fans with personal fans available for purchase at the commissary, the report found. It suggested facilities install additional portable air conditioning units and provide staff and prisoners breaks from the heat by setting up cooling stations.
The Latino Action Network called the conditions unacceptable, saying the DOC was not providing humane housing conditions even as the prison population dropped to its lowest number in decades.
“I try to imagine the torture of no relief in an 8-by-10 [foot] cement room for 24 hours a day,” said Cuqui Rivera, an organizer with the Latino Action Network. “This report mentions giving ice sometimes twice a day. It mentions ice shortages. How long does it take for ice to melt in these temperatures?”
Sweltering conditions were also reported this August inside Rikers Island, where New York Assemblymember Eddie Gibbs said temperatures felt as high as 96 degrees.