Psychotropic medications can impair the body's ability to cool itself by sweating, experts say. That's a particular concern as the number of mentally ill inmates who take such drugs has risen steadily. According to Bureau of Justice Statistics from 2005, the most recent year available, more than half of all jail and state prison inmates had a mental health problem.
Nationally, the bureau doesn't track heat-related deaths in jails and prisons. But they do occur.
A report issued last month by the University of Texas School of Law's Human Rights Clinic found that at least 14 inmates have died from exposure to extreme heat since 2007 in state correctional facilities. And a federal judge ruled in April that a special monitor will be appointed to make sure the heat index doesn't top 88 degrees for death-row inmates at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola.
The courts have likewise ruled that Arizona prisoners on psychotropic medication must be housed in a unit where the temperature is maintained at 85 degrees or below and Wisconsin was ordered to install air conditioning in a so-called Supermax state prison, Fathi said. Courts have also ruled on heat conditions for prisoners in cases brought in Illinois, Georgia and Delaware.
Some corrections officials have argued that upgrading decades-old facilities to be retrofitted with air-conditioning units is costly and complicated. They've also warned that air conditioning certain units, such as punitive segregation units, might encourage prisoners to act out in the hopes of landing a cooler bunk.
In New York City, a court-appointed monitor's expert has said the practice of circulating air in housing units for nearly 600 inmates under 23-hour lockdown behind solid-door cells isn't a sufficient means of cooling, according to court documents in a long-running lawsuit over heat-conditions on Rikers Island.