Some Rikers inmates had no air conditioning during heat wave, lawmakers say

In the week before the recent heat wave, Department of Correction officials testified at a hearing that nearly 200 people incarcerated with conditions exacerbated by heat still had no air conditioning..

William Alatriste/NYC Council Media Unit

Councilor Tiffany Cabán at a meeting outside Rikers in February. She is one of two lawmakers who visited the prison complex earlier this week.

As New York City went into a steady week-long heatwave, men at an unair-conditioned intake facility on Rikers Island stripped down to only city-issued shorts and languished for days in damp conditions while waiting for a housing assignment.

“There was no ventilation, no air conditioning, it was sweltering hot,” said Councilman Tiffany Cabán, who, along with Councilor Sandy Nurse, made an unannounced visit to the controversial facility Monday morning as temperatures in the city reached mid-to-late temperatures after several consecutive days. the high 90s. Cabán told City Limits that several inmates she spoke to had been waiting for four days or more in the shooting area, a large rectangular room with cells along the edge.

“One of the people I spoke to said, ‘Hey, I’m heat sensitive, they know, it’s on my papers. I have asthma and I’ve been here for four days and haven’t been able to see a doctor,’ Cabán told City Limits.

Subject to security or safety exceptions, the Department of Correction (DOC) says it is prioritizing air conditioning for those considered “heat sensitive” — those with underlying health conditions such as asthma or heart disease that can make them more susceptible to high heat health problems.

Lawmakers did not immediately respond to questions about the number of people they saw in the intake facility during their visit Monday, although lawyers for the Legal Aid Society estimate it could be at least dozens.

And in the week before the heat wave, DOC Deputy Commissioner for Quality Assurance and Integrity, Patricia Feeney, admitted that nearly 200 individuals incarcerated with conditions exacerbated by heat still lacked air conditioning.

More than half of them had refused to be moved to other spaces, Feeney added during a July 12 meeting of the Board of Correction (BOC), which oversees the DOC, the agency that manages city prisons. Nine others were considered a security risk if moved.

A third — 57 — of the heat-sensitive individuals without air conditioning didn’t fit into either of those two categories, Feeney admitted, adding that at the time, she didn’t know where those inmates were currently housed.

Two weeks later, the answer to that question has still not been given. “The Council has not yet received a response from DOC regarding the 57 heat-sensitive individuals,” a BOC spokesperson told City Limits in response to a public filing request.

The DOC also did not immediately respond to the same question when asked repeatedly by City Limits, instead offering a statement noting that there have been no reports of heat-related medical emergencies at the prison complex.

“As we do every year, we have implemented a heat plan that carefully considers those most at risk for heat-related problems, and we are closely monitoring the situation,” a DOC spokesperson said. “We have also installed additional air conditioning in residential units, as well as additional fans.”

During her visit to the facility Monday, Cabán did not see any fans in the intake area, she told City Limits.

“We know that incarcerated and incarcerated individuals are being hit more acutely by the climate crisis and other major public health emergencies, due to gatherings, neglected infrastructure and a general disregard for their lives by those in authority,” Nurse said in a press release. the come to visit.

Lawyers and BOC members have long criticized the DOC heat plan and the agency’s inability to follow it fully. It promises, among other things, the distribution of ice, access to cold showers and the use of fans for detainees where air conditioning is not available. But critics say the ongoing staff shortages that have plagued the facility since the start of the pandemic are making access to those services few and far between.

“In previous summers, when the Department provided ice cream, it consisted of nothing more than a single cup of Dixie ice cream for each adult, which is clearly insufficient,” the Legal Aid Society wrote in a July 20 letter to the DOC.

The problems are similar to City Limits last year, when lawyers and people behind bars said staff shortages had reduced access to showers and even cold water during the hot summer months.

And the year before, in the summer of 2020, 90 percent of the more than 300 complaints received by the DOC’s Office of Constituent and Grievance Services related to non-functioning air conditioning units or fans, intense heat, lack of access to ice or cooling showers and requests from heat-sensitive inmates to move into air-conditioned homes, a BOC report found.

The board has not yet released its heat report for the summer of 2021.

Robert Quackenbush, a lawyer with the Prisoner Justice Project for Legal Aid Society, said he has received some complaints so far this summer — but fewer than he expected — from individuals on Rikers regarding heat.

“Some people say, ‘I should be’ [categorized as] heat sensitive, but I’m not, so doctors please reassess me.’ Other people say, ‘I’ve been designated as heat-sensitive, but I don’t know why I don’t have air conditioning,'” he told City Limits.

“Part of me is glad I didn’t hear many complaints because maybe the worst fears haven’t come true, but there could be a hundred explanations as to why we didn’t get as many calls about this as I expected,” he added.

The DOC’s heat plan states that at the end of May, just over half of the more than 10,000 people trapped in Rikers were in air-conditioned homes. More than 300 people who did not have air conditioning at the time were considered heat sensitive. The department noted that 84 percent of those individuals refused to be moved.

During the July 12 meeting, BOC member Dr. Robert Cohen wonders whether hundreds of beds in Rose M. Singer, the air-conditioned female dormitory in Rikers, could be used to replenish the male population. DOC Commissioner Louis Molina responded that using the prison as a mixed-use facility would not provide “sight and sound separation as required by regulations”.

“I wish they had considered air conditioning when they built these facilities, but as you know we have a significantly outdated infrastructure that has not been kept up for a number of years and that is why we are in this situation,” Molina responded at the time.

Heat is a particular problem in the prison’s Enhanced Supervision Housing (ESH) facilities, which proponents have long called for the ward to stop using, especially during the summer.

Prisoners housed in these units – small solidarity cells that receive little airflow and have no air conditioning – are confined there for more than 10 hours at a time.

Quackenbush previously told City Limits that the DOC had assured him that the homes with enhanced supervision would be closed this summer and that inmates would be moved to an air-conditioned facility as part of general improvements.

But late last month, a federal monitor advised against the change, citing security concerns, prompting Mayor Eric Adams to issue an executive order to keep the solitary confinement units open indefinitely.

“The Board of Correction’s standards for restrictive housing, which Mayor Adams suspended by Executive Order, require air conditioning precisely because being locked up in your cell for an extended period of time poses an extraordinary heat risk,” another letter written by the Legal Aid Society on July 19 is reading.

Quackenbush said he and his team were shocked by the last-minute cancellation of the changes, which would have eliminated heat problems in cells without ventilation and made significant improvements in the use of solitary confinement in prison.

“The monitor focused on this new limited housing system that would replace the ESH — basically saying DOC isn’t ready for this, they’re not trained for this and they won’t be able to run this program now,” he said.

“I don’t think anyone is really optimistic that this change is going to happen this summer.”

Leave a Comment