August 8, 2002
JACKSONVILLE -- Florida death row inmates say temperatures that routinely top 100 degrees in their cells force them to stand in toilets, drape themselves in wet towels and sleep naked on concrete floors.
Those allegations are at the heart of a class action lawsuit that claims the heat inside Union Correctional Institution near Raiford is cruel and unusual punishment and could lead to mental and physical illnesses and even death.
U.S. District Judge Ralph W. Nimmons, who has toured the prison 45 miles southwest of Jacksonville and last week interviewed some of the 300 inmates, is expected to rule later this year.
By the time the lawsuit is decided, the inmates will have endured three summers of what their attorneys claim is a "dungeonlike" atmosphere since the case was filed in 2000.
"We want them to bring the temperatures down," said Randall Berg, a Miami attorney representing the inmates.
But lawyers with Florida's Attorney General's Office said conditions are not severe enough to violate the Constitution.
"I consider this a borderline frivolous lawsuit," said Caryl Killinski, who represents the state. "It gets warm in any building not air-conditioned."
Berg said the heat is especially oppressive for older and obese inmates and those with physical and mental problems.
"Subjecting inmates, who are confined in their cells nearly all the time, to temperatures almost always in excess of 90 degrees, frequently in excess of 100 degrees, and as high as 110 degrees, can only be called physically barbarous," the suit says.
Killinski disagreed. "Since 1992 . . . there has not been one single case of an inmate suffering from a heat-related illness," she said in a telephone interview.
Court documents show 30 prisoners sought medical treatment from June through September 2000 and 18 in the same period in 2001 for symptoms of faintness, nausea, headache, apprehension, dizziness, irritability, weakness, unsteady gait, or excessive thirst or hunger.
"It's just a matter of time before someone dies," Berg said.
The 1999 annual report of the Florida Corrections Commission said elderly inmates need more heat in the winter and air conditioning in the summer. And Florida's death row population is aging.
Of the 329 prisoners under death sentences on Jan. 22, 107 were 45 or older and six were over 65. More than a third, 129, were obese and 86 had skin disorders, according to court documents.
Sterling Ivey, a spokesman for the Department of Corrections, said he could not comment on matters in litigation.
The lawsuit, originally filed by condemned inmates Jim E. Chandler and William Kelley, also alleges that three recent changes in policy and procedures have worsened the problem. Inmates are no longer allowed to hang air deflectors on the vents in their cells, screening has been installed over the cell bars and air handlers have been turned off.
The installation of fans has been discussed, but Killinski said the electrical system at Union Correctional Institution could not support 300 individual fans.
"The plaintiffs want air conditioning," she said. "If they want air conditioned prisons, they should go to the Legislature and not to federal court."
Just six of the 52 major prisons in Florida have air conditioning in most of the inmate housing units. They are Brevard, Broward, Dade, Hillsborough and Lancaster correctional institutions. In addition, some areas of Union Correctional Institution have air conditioning.
Nimmons adjourned the trial late last week and asked both sides to submit their closing arguments in writing.