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It’s Not the Heat

Prison inmates are dying of cold. Why?

Rikers Island corrections officer Carol Lackner was indicted on Monday in the case of Jerome Murdough, a mentally ill inmate who baked to death on February 15 in a cell that exceeded 100 degrees. Lackner was charged with falsifying prison records to indicate that she had checked on Murdough repeatedly throughout the night.

Murdough’s death is not an isolated incident. Since 2002, at least 14 inmate deaths in Texas have been linked to sweltering prison conditions. Concerns about extreme prison temperatures were even raised by the United Nations Committee Against Torture in late November; the UN’s report cited deaths in “unbearably hot and poor ventilated prison facilities in Arizona, California, Florida, New York, Michigan and Texas.”

But, while it doesn’t get as much notice, cold can also be a killer in prisons. Here’s why:

Mental-Health Meds

Some cases of hypothermic deaths were believed to be influenced by antipsychotic drugs, prescribed to inmates diagnosed with mental illness. These medications can interrupt the body’s ability to regulate temperature. In California, a state report described a 56-year-old inmate with “severe mental illness” on psychoactive medication, Risperdal, who died of hypothermia. In the months before his death, his body temperature was recorded as low as 84.3 degrees. (Hypothermia begins when the core body temperature dips below 95 degrees.)

In Tampa, Fla., emergency-room doctors examined a 69-year-old schizophrenic inmate who was removed from an air-conditioned cell after guards found him unresponsive. Doctors measured his core temperature at 85 degrees and wrote an article about his case to inform other emergency physicians about this “potentially devastating complication of antipsychotic therapy.”

Solitary Confinement Conditions

A review of recent deaths and diagnoses shows that in many cases, hypothermic inmates were being held in isolation, and were provided limited clothing and blankets as a precaution against suicide. “Without a blanket, all someone can do is get in fetal position and hope he has enough shivering capacity to withstand the slow reduction of heat from his body,” said Dr. Robert Pozos, the former director of the hypothermia research laboratory at the Duluth campus of the University of Minnesota.

A lawsuit on behalf of six former inmates at the Multi-County Juvenile Detention Center in Ohio alleges that in 2013 and 2014, the juveniles were frequently kept nearly naked without access to blankets in solitary confinement cells with temperatures in the mid-50s. According to the suit, symptoms of hypothermia set in, including intense shivering, chattering of teeth, dizziness, and confusion. Inmates even resorted to stuffing the vents with toilet paper. Said Melissa Hopper, a former nurse at the facility, “Cold would come out of the cell as if you had opened a refrigerator door.”

Aggressive Air Conditioning

Willie Daniels was found with a 79 degree core body temperature in the psychiatric wing of the Miami-Dade jail, and a subsequent investigation by the Department of Justice concluded “poor circulation of the wing's air-conditioning traps the cold air in the cells” causing the temperature to drop “as much as 20 degrees below room temperature.”

After 155 days in the Broward County Jail in Florida, Raleigh Priester was admitted to the hospital with a core temperature of 80.6 degrees (although he also suffered from pneumonia, anemia, and a blood infection). He later died. Greg Lauer, an attorney suing on behalf of Priester’s family, said that despite the fact that it “never gets cold” in Broward County, Fla., the jail was “cold as hell.” “The staff are always dressed for winter, even when it’s 90 degrees outside,” he said.

Faulty Heating

According to a wrongful death lawsuit, Amy Gillespie, a 27-year-old pregnant inmate at Alleghany County Jail in Pittsburgh, Pa. died in 2010, along with her unborn baby, of pneumonia as a result of the conditions in her cellblock. “It was so cold, they could see their breath,” said Elmer Robert Keach, the attorney representing Gillespie’s mother in the lawsuit. One of the inmates, Melissa Noftz, who was incarcerated with Gillespie, testified the heat was broken and the entire cellblock was “freezing cold.” Noftz claimed that the women rigged the sink “so that the hot water ran nonstop and it would create steam, and that was our heat.”

A broken heating system was blamed for the 2008 death of Jerome Laudman, a mentally ill inmate who was kept naked for 11 days in South Carolina’s Lee County Correctional Institution. Laudman’s temperature was 80.6 degrees when he was taken to a hospital, where he died. And officials blamed faulty heat valves for the 2003 death of Charles Platcher, an inmate at the Menard Correctional Center in Illinois who died of hypothermia; all his clothing had been removed because Platcher was on suicide watch. The prison warden denied claims from the inmate’s family that the staff wore winter clothes at work.

Then there’s the case of Daniel Pantera, who on Dec. 24, 2012, took off all his clothes and crawled underneath the bed in his cell at the Niagara County Jail in Lockport, N.Y. By the next morning, Pantera was dead. The official cause: hypothermia, which can be marked by “paradoxical undressing” and “burrowing.” Nursing staff later told investigators that the unit Pantera was held in was so cold that they kept heaters under their desks and wore blankets on their shoulders at night.