In Philadelphia, doing hard - and hot - time

Sol Marie Castro , 31, who is awaiting trial in a simple assault, says a shower did little to help him stay cool in jail during the heat wave, because the water isn't cold. The House of Correction isn't air-conditioned. ( CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer )

From his cell on C block, Eric Jackson could hear the whirl of a nearby fan but couldn't feel the breeze. As the temperature in Philadelphia ticked into the 90s Monday, Jackson ripped the sheet from his bunk at the House of Correction. He said it had started to stink of sweat.

"You lay there soaked in sweat, just laying on a bare mattress," Jackson, 31, said while waiting for a bus outside the prison after serving six weeks for theft. "You see cockroaches running up the wall, mice running across the floor. That alone is enough to make you want to stay out of jail."

City officials making a case for replacing the aging House of Correction list a litany of concerns: no sprinklers, no automatic locks, an archaic layout that creates security concerns. Few problems are likely to gather less public sympathy, though, than the lack of air-conditioning.

Yet it's an issue increasingly worrying inmate advocates nationally, who say high temperatures - like those in last week's heat wave - can be life-threatening to a prison population that is aging and often on medications that raise sensitivity to heat.

"Everybody knows if you leave a child in a car on a hot day, there's a serious risk of injury or death," said David Fathi, director of the National Prison Project for the American Civil Liberties Union. "The same is true if you leave a person in a hot cell on a hot day."

Of the six facilities that make up the city's Northeast Philadelphia prison complex, two - the House of Correction and all but one wing at the Detention Center - lack central air.

The House of Correction, which opened in 1927, has been in the spotlight since the spring, when a city plan to buy land for a replacement stalled due to opposition on City Council. Prison officials who declined an Inquirer request to tour the facility during last week's heat wave said they were concerned, in part, about having to restrict inmates during the difficult conditions.

Shawn Hawes, the prison system's spokeswoman, said inmates with health concerns are moved to air-conditioned facilities based on need. (She was unable to say how many had been moved for that reason this summer.)

But with as many as a third of the system's 8,000 inmates classified as heat-sensitive, not everyone can be transferred. Hawes said that during heat advisories, inmates are given extra ice and cold drinking water, and fans are placed in housing areas that lack air-conditioning.

Tom Innes, director of prison services at the Philadelphia public defender's office, said three inmates - including one with a heart condition and another who was having trouble breathing - contacted his office last week because of the heat.

He said all were moved to air-conditioned facilities, and added that jail officials are always receptive to such requests.

"But there are probably people who are represented by private counsel who don't have the benefit of somebody like me knowing whom to call, where to call," he said.

A half-dozen former inmates and relatives of current inmates interviewed last week said that after temperatures hit the 90s for several days, conditions in the House of Correction grew unbearable.

"The walls itself sweat," said 35-year-old Malik Brooks as he stood near the prison's bus stop Monday after maxing out his 23-month sentence for criminal trespass. To keep cool, he said, he soaked his clothing in the shower.

Sol Marie Castro, 31, freed while he awaits trial in a simple assault, said other times a shower does little to help - because the water isn't cold.

As she squinted into the sun from beneath the metal bus shelter, Nancy Davis said her 19-year-old grandson already was struggling with depression after a few weeks in the House of Correction. The heat, she said, seemed to make things worse.

"I feel so bad for him. It makes me cry because it makes his mother cry," she said. "He cries, she cries, I cry."

The corrections officers' union leader sympathizes. "It's hot in there," Lorenzo North said of the House of Correction. "It's like a steam bath."

The warden, William Lawton, said Friday that the facility is hot but that conditions are "not life-threatening or unbearable by any means." He said areas such as the social workers' office have air-conditioning. (His office has a window unit, he said.) And inmates are allowed to wear alternative uniforms with shorts, he said.

"It's the same as living in a house without air-conditioning," he said.

Over the years, inmate advocates here and elsewhere have argued otherwise. Some courts have agreed, ordering air-conditioning or other steps to cool down prisons.

In 2001, a federal judge ordered air-conditioning for Wisconsin's super-maximum-security prison, rejecting arguments that keeping a "balmy temperature between 80 and 84" during heat waves would stir inmates elsewhere to attack guards or other inmates in order to be transferred there.

In Arizona, a judge ordered inmates on psychotropic medications to be kept in rooms 85 degrees or cooler. When 10 Texas inmates died of heat-related deaths in 2011, families and civil-rights groups found an unlikely ally: the union that represents corrections officers.

Hawes said no heat-related emergencies were reported when temperatures spiked here last week.

Fathi, though, stressed that courts have been clear: "You don't have to wait until there are deaths to get a court order to remedy dangerous conditions." He sees a "knowledge gap" in how the public views the issue, because many people live without air-conditioning. But he said inmates can't go to the mall or take other common steps to cool down.

"People who are locked in a cell are in a very different position than people in the free world," he said. "And for them, extreme temperature really can be lethal."

Fathi said concerns over heat have grown as the prison population ages, a trend partly driven by longer sentences. The number of inmates over 55 has skyrocketed since 1981 and will keep climbing for at least the next 15 years, an ACLU study found.

Officials have said it would be hard to install air-conditioning in Philadelphia's House of Correction, with its thick concrete walls. And if the city did decide to build a replacement, that would likely be years off, meaning that, for now, inmates will have to bear the hot spells - along with the crowding. As of Wednesday, the jail was about 200 over its 1,250-person capacity. That means housing three inmates in two-man cells.

One place in the House of Correction offers a respite: the air-conditioned room where inmates meet with their lawyers. Innes said last week that more than one public defender noticed clients wanting to linger there a little longer.

"Being chatty with your lawyer is a good thing," he said. "So there's some sort of weird . . . benefit, in a very small way."