Winter in Prison: Icy Conditions, No Blankets, Illness, and Death

Erica Bryant Associate Director of Writing
Feb 18, 2022

Every winter brings with it new horror stories of freezing temperatures in U.S. prisons, jails, and detention facilities. Across the country, vague regulations regarding temperature leave the door open to dangerous interpretation, resulting in harm—or worse, death.

Complaints about cold temperatures are very common, says Alfreda Jones, president of Advocates for Inmates. Adequate heat has always been an issue during the 20 years that Jones has been advocating for the rights and safety of incarcerated people. Now COVID-19, which continues to spread in U.S. correctional and detention facilities, has exacerbated the health threats facing people who are confined in very cold temperatures. “They get sick with the flu and colds and pneumonia,” she said. “It has been ongoing with the lack of heat in the wintertime. I get calls all of the time that it is just freezing in there. It is punishment on top of punishment.”

The United Nations Committee against Torture has expressed “extreme concern” over deaths in U.S. jails and prisons due to unbearable temperatures. It says that the United States should “adopt urgent measures to remedy any deficiencies concerning temperature, insufficient ventilation and humidity levels in prison cells.”

“Our current system is based on practices that are rooted in slavery and the lack of regard for human beings,” said Clinique Chapman, associate director for Vera and MILPA’s Restoring Promise initiative, which creates prison housing units grounded in dignity. “The experience in today’s correctional system focuses on punishment, not addressing harms or normalizing the environment. Systems, and those running the system, do not feel as if people who are incarcerated deserve a warm bed.”

Poor heating systems in prisons and jails combined with abysmal mental health care create especially dangerous situations for people with mental health conditions. Certain antipsychotic drugs can affect the body’s ability to regulate temperature. When these drugs are given to people who are incarcerated in freezing conditions with little to nothing to protect them from the elements, life-threatening hypothermia can result.

“Without a blanket, all someone can do is get in fetal position and hope he has enough shivering capacity to withstand the slow reduction of heat from his body,” said Dr. Robert Pozos, the former director of the hypothermia research laboratory at University of Minnesota Duluth.

In too many jails and prisons, the response to acute mental illness is not treatment by psychiatrists, but isolation in a small cell with little to no clothing. A consultant hired to assess the East Baton Rouge Parish Prison found that people who were on suicide watch were given paper gowns and no sheets or blankets in temperatures so cold they risked hypothermia. One person held in such conditions described trying to get warm by squeezing himself inside the plastic covering of his mattress. Jerome Laudman, a man diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, intellectual disability, and bipolar disorder died after being kept naked for 11 days in solitary confinement, where he suffered hypothermia.

“If you leave room for discretion, bias can creep in,” said Chapman. “If you leave it up to an individual to make the decision and basic human dignity is not their focus, why would they make a decision based on anything other than punishment?”

People who have been detained in prison-like environments as the United States considers their asylum claims also report unbearable cold. People detained at Pine Prairie ICE Processing Center reported that the segregation unit had no heat at all and that officers would retaliate against those who complained of the temperature by turning on fans and throwing away blankets. U.S. Customs and Border Protection holding cells are so cold they have been renamed hieleras (ice boxes) by people who have experienced them.

People who recognize the inhumanity in this treatment have supported clothing drives, collecting warm clothes for incarcerated people. The fact that such drives must exist underscores the need to radically transform corrections culture. Setting and enforcing specific temperature regulations can help prevent harm, and at worst, death. More important, U.S. correctional facilities need to build cultures that truly respect and center the humanity of people who are incarcerated. Unbearably cold temperatures are emblematic of a culture of punishment and dehumanization. People who are incarcerated deserve an environment that is safe enough to foster healing, hope, and restoration and is grounded in respect for their dignity as human beings.