Cruel summer: Temps topped 90 degrees in NJ prisons without AC
TRENTON – Roughly 3,500 inmates and 3,000 correctional police officers live or work in New Jersey prison housing units without air conditioning, where temperatures at times topped 90 degrees this summer, according to the Department of Corrections ombudsman.
In a report published Tuesday, the ombudsman said there are heat issues in the state prisons every summer. Investigators brought thermometers to site visits to the prisons this summer and detected temperatures of 88 degrees Fahrenheit and 94 degrees in August.
“We said: What is it like in here? They said it’s scorching. What is it like in here? It’s unbearable. What is it like in here? It’s like hell,” said Terry Schuster, who became ombudsperson in May.
“We heard a variety of different complaints related to when it’s this hot, you see people will catch a charge, basically sort of assault somebody, in order to get placed into a disciplinary unit that is air-conditioned,” Schuster said.
He said the Department of Corrections has deployed short-term fixes but that the ultimate solution would be for the state to prioritize fixing older prisons. He didn’t have an estimate for what that might cost, though the report says it would be tens of millions of dollars and take years.
“They’re working with a few very, very old facilities that are not air-conditioned or that have large portions that cannot be air-conditioned currently and that would need some significant investment to improve the infrastructure so that it’s possible to air condition,” Schuster said.
“They’ve done quite a lot, actually,” he said. “They’ve put every Band-Aid they’ve got on this problem, by giving people more showers and bringing in fans and trying to do ice runs every day, trying to sort of come up with a protocol for people on certain medications that make them extra sensitive to heat.”
Around 3,500 of the state’s 11,000 inmates were housed in units with air conditioning this summer.
Three prisons account for more than three-fourths of the prison beds without air conditioning: Bayside State Prison, where 58% of beds lack AC; East Jersey State Prison, where 87% of beds are without it; and Garden State Correctional Facility, where it is unavailable in 74% of beds.
Three prisons are fully air-conditioned, including the two largest ones. The remaining three have a mix.
Around 3,000 correctional police officers work on those units without air conditioning, sometimes doing double shifts to cover time off amid summer vacations and a short staff. Officers told investigators the heat slows down response times and leads to fights and aggravation.
In a July 8 memo, the Department of Corrections established heat mitigation protocols to be used when inside temperatures reach 86 degrees. The policy also postpones educational classes, programming and work details when heat reaches those levels.
People in some facilities had to pay for ice or got it only once per day or not at all.