Judges from Arizona to Mississippi to Wisconsin have declared over the years that the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution forbids incarceration in decidedly hot or cold temperatures. Still, prison reform activists encounter deep resistance in their quest to cool the nation’s cellblocks.“It’s almost impossible for courts to deny the constitutional violation because extreme heat undoubtedly exposes individuals to substantial risk of serious harm,” said Mercedes Montagnes, a lawyer for three inmates with health issues who challenged conditions on Louisiana’s death row. “Now what we’re grappling with is the remedy.”Officials offer a range of justifications for the absence of air-conditioning and for their reliance on cold showers, plentiful liquids and fans to help prisoners manage in the heat. Some contend that cooling systems are prohibitively expensive to install, particularly in older facilities.
In places like Louisiana and Texas, sweltering states where elected officials cherish tough-on-crime credentials, it is politically poisonous to be perceived as coddling prisoners. And many officials simply say that temperatures are not anywhere near as dire as prisoners and their lawyers claim.“For the first 20 years of my life, I lived in a house with no air-conditioning,” said Jim Willett, the director of the Texas Prison Museum and a former warden at the state’s death house. “I just have a hard time sympathizing with anybody over air-conditioning.”In Jefferson Davis Parish and elsewhere, plenty of people wonder why climate control is even before the courts. Prisoners are serving punishments and do not merit, as people here repeatedly put it, “a country club jail.”
But after her release, Ms. Bourque, 25, described an environment where inmates found little relief.“It’s hot as hell,” she said. “The church ladies come over there, and I told her that. And she was like, ‘No, I believe hell is hotter.’ And I was like, ‘It’s just an expression. It’s hot as hell.’”