Philly Prisoners Get Extra Punishment in Heat Wave

An outbreak of suicidal inmates raises questions.

Weather is a great leveler. We talk about it when we have nothing else to talk about, with people we’d have nothing to talk about with otherwise. It’s one of the few remaining facets of our globalized world that is still utterly localized. And when it goes bad, it reveals a whole lot about our societies and ourselves.

Take that most notorious of examples, Hurricane Katrina, a natural disaster whose catastrophic effects broke down chillingly along class and race lines. To simplify a many-layered and complex moment in our national history, the rich weathered the storm largely intact on their high ground, while the poor were ripped apart and the Bush administration revealed its true and brilliantly inept colors. Katrina demonstrated, is indeed still demonstrating, the structural inequality—present in everything from land allocation to infrastructure maintenance and aid relief—that plagues American society.

But it doesn’t necessarily take such drastic climate patterns to uncover social truths. All we really need is a good solid heat wave like the one we’ve been sweltering through to bring our aggressions, animosities, latent issues and hidden atrocities to a boil.

Back in 1995—when El Nino was only a buzzword and global warming still just a theory (which it is no longer people; it’s fact, get real)—Chicago suffered one of its hottest summers on record. From July 12th to July 16th, the heat index reached as high as 119 degrees, with evening temperatures in the mid-80s some nights. Almost 750 people died in that five-day heat wave, and most of them were elderly black inner-city dwellers who couldn’t afford air conditioning and didn’t want to open their windows for fear of crime. The city’s most overlooked and disenfranchised community (old, black and poor) was the first to perish, through neglect, fear and disability.

The scope and specific atrocity of this heat-related Chicago tragedy is relatively unmatched in Philadelphia history. But just as Chicago’s urban poor were left to suffer in the swelter, so has Philadelphia’s incarcerated population, perhaps the most overlooked swath of society, begun to be affected by rising temps. Though rather than perishing due to bad ventilation, old age and extreme heat, Philadelphia-area inmates are taking their own lives.

As the Inquirer reported last weekend, four suicide attempts in four days—three successful and one not—have apparently alarmed prison officials and watchdogs enough to begin inquiries as to the mental health and conditions of inmates. Every one of the suicidal inmates was under the age of 25, and all were residents of a city prison system deemed “overcrowded.” Yet it was one small line at the end of the article that really gave some insight into their situation:

“The Detention Center has no air-conditioning for inmates or the staffers who oversee them.”

Imagine enduring lockdown with thousands of other equally stifled and angry men for days on end and then multiply whatever you’re imagining by 103-degree heat and ask yourself if anyone deserves to suffer that kind of suffocation.

Prison inmates are not the elderly urban poor, but they are, overwhelmingly in this country, people of color. The Sentencing Project, a research and advocacy organization for prison reform, reports that one in 10 black men in their 30s are currently incarcerated, and 60 percent of people in prison are racial and ethnic minorities. You may believe that prisoners should suffer, but is this really the kind of suffering you mean? Do 24-year-old men deserve to swelter in 100+ degree heat, and be left to kill themselves rather than live another day in their condition?