Kansas to air-con­di­tion prison as heat be­comes new con­cern

Kuwait Times - - INTERNATIONAL -

Kansas cor­rec­tions of­fi­cials ex­pect the next prison built by the state to be fully air-con­di­tioned, in­clud­ing the cells for in­mates, view­ing it both as a way to lessen prob­lems with in­mates and to com­bat high em­ployee turnover.

Some law­mak­ers who don’t want to cod­dle crim­i­nals see a need to make cor­rec­tions of­fi­cers less mis­er­able in the sum­mer heat. When Cor­rec­tions Sec­re­tary Joe Nor­wood matter-of-factly told a leg­isla­tive com­mit­tee ear­lier this month that plans for a new prison in­cluded it, its mem­bers let the state­ment pass with­out com­ment, though ques­tions may come later.

The state’s plans to fully air-con­di­tion the new prison planned for Lans­ing in the Kansas City area also come as a fed­eral judge is forc­ing Texas to move hun­dreds of in­mates who are sen­si­tive to the heat to cooler ar­eas. The Amer­i­can Civil Lib­er­ties Union has pre­vailed in law­suits on pris­on­ers’ be­half in Ari­zona, Mis­sis­sippi and Wis­con­sin since 2004.

In Kansas, the union rep­re­sent­ing cor­rec­tions of­fi­cers con­sid­ers the lack of air con­di­tion­ing in parts of the state’s max­i­mum-se­cu­rity prison in El Do­rado, east of Wi­chita, a con­tribut­ing fac­tor to in­mate un­rest there that in­cluded three re­ported dis­tur­bances in May and June. Cor­rec­tions of­fi­cials said air con­di­tion­ing is be­com­ing more nec­es­sary be­cause of in­mates’ med­i­cal needs. “This is not an is­sue of com­fort or lux­ury,” said David Fathi, direc­tor of the ACLU’s Na­tional Prison Project. “You should no more build a prison with­out cli­mate con­trol than you should a prison with­out fire es­capes.”

In St Louis, the city paid $75,000 in late July to bring in tem­po­rary air con­di­tion­ers to its medi­um­se­cu­rity jail when tem­per­a­tures topped 100 de­grees (38 Cel­sius) and prompted protests out­side the jail. Triple-digit tem­per­a­tures are not un­usual for the height of sum­mer in Kansas, and the av­er­age monthly tem­per­a­ture ap­proaches 80 (27 Cel­sius) at the end of May and stays there or higher through Septem­ber.

The Kansas De­part­ment of Cor­rec­tions plans to build a re­place­ment prison in Lans­ing, where its old­est and largest lockup has build­ings that date to the 1860s and no air con­di­tion­ing. The de­part­ment hopes to have a fi­nal con­struc­tion con­tract in Novem­ber for what could be a three-year, $155 mil­lion project. The de­part­ment has a 33 per­cent an­nual turnover rate among cor­rec­tions of­fi­cers be­cause of low pay, which starts at $13.95 an hour. The rate at Lans­ing is 37 per­cent and at El Do­rado, 46 per­cent.

Topic met with push-back

Nor­wood told the leg­isla­tive com­mit­tee that in the sum­mer, with­out air con­di­tion­ing, Lans­ing be­comes “ex­tremely un­com­fort­able” for staff. He said with the new prison’s air con­di­tion­ing, “the work­ing con­di­tions and liv­ing con­di­tions will be much bet­ter.” Not all leg­is­la­tors are on board. State Rep JR Claeys, a Salina Repub­li­can and chair­man of a House bud­get sub­com­mit­tee on public safety, said he doesn’t re­mem­ber be­ing told of the plan for full air con­di­tion­ing and would have ob­jected on be­half of tax­pay­ers who can’t af­ford it or other com­forts.

“That would have been a topic that would have met with some push-back,” he said. Se­nate Ways and Means Com­mit­tee Chair­woman Carolyn McGinn, a Sedg­wick Repub­li­can, said she un­der­stands cool­ing pris­ons to make staff safer and more com­fort­able and in­mates less prone to un­rest. But she added that for in­mates, “It doesn’t have to be on 70. It can be on 85.” Court rul­ings in other states have man­dated ac­tion when heat in­dexes get above 80 de­grees (27 Cel­sius). Kansas cor­rec­tions of­fi­cials seek to keep tem­per­a­tures in air-con­di­tioned ar­eas for in­mates at 78 (26 Cel­sius). Roughly 70 per­cent of Kansas in­mates in state pris­ons are in build­ings with­out air con­di­tion­ing, in­clud­ing in Lans­ing and at the state’s sec­ond-old­est prison in Hutchinson. Five of the eight pris­ons are at least par­tially air-con­di­tioned, in­clud­ing much of the one in El Do­rado.

Cor­rec­tions De­part­ment spokes­woman Ch­eryl Cadue said one con­cern is that many in­mates “are tak­ing heat-sen­si­tive psy­chi­atric med­i­ca­tion.” Robert Choro­man­ski, ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor of the Kansas Or­ga­ni­za­tion of State Em­ploy­ees, said the new prison should come with air con­di­tion­ing be­cause, “This is the 21st cen­tury.” Cen­sus fig­ures show that in 2016, 94 per­cent of all new sin­gle­fam­ily homes in the Mid­west were built with air con­di­tion­ing, com­pared with 40 per­cent in 1976. He said that if leg­is­la­tors are in­clined to see hot cell houses as part of the pun­ish­ment for crim­i­nals, “Guess who else you’re pun­ish­ing? It’s our cor­rec­tional of­fi­cers.” — AP

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