By: Sid Salter
Those who are like me old enough to remember life before air conditioning in the Deep South often flinch a bit when passionate, well-meaning young prison reformers launch into a lecture about the cruelties of operating state prisons without the benefit of that comfort.
Air conditioning on a national scale in the U.S. was a decidedly post-World War II development. Depending on one’s socioeconomic status and geography, it was in the period between 1970 and 1990 when a solid majority of Mississippians first enjoyed residential air conditioning.
As I’ve noted before in writing on this topic, the notion that the taxpayers of Mississippi, Texas, Louisiana, Alabama, and Florida were submitting prisoners in those states to “cruel and unusual punishment” in violation of 8th Amendment rights by not providing air conditioning for their cells was news indeed to people of a certain age across the South.
Beyond that, spending hundreds of thousands of dollars for the comfort of criminals – some violent, repeat offenders among them – is a political non-starter among taxpayers who favor a more “get tough on crime” approach.
That said, it seems to me that the decision of the Mississippi Department of Corrections to air condition first the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman and later the Central Mississippi and South Mississippi prison complexes is a decision that reflects both basic humanity and surprising business acumen.
It’s not all about the inmates. Here’s why: post-COVID, there is a labor shortage across the board. Air-conditioned factories and service industry employers are advertising hiring bonuses seeking workers to accept comfortable jobs in their enterprises and the employee shortfall endures.
At the same time, MDOC needs some 600 staff members to guard and otherwise interact with the state’s prison inmates. Pay is better now than when Gov. Tate Reeves brought in MDOC Commissioner Burl Cain to lead the agency. But finding workers who want to take on guarding prisoners in sweltering prisons that regularly reach temperatures of 124 degrees and beyond remains a hard sell.
While installing air conditioners in prisons automatically fuels political cries of “coddling prisoners” the fact is that when considering the costs of almost constant federal litigation over Mississippi prison conditions, MDOC personnel challenges and the inmate healthcare cost burdens presented by failing to provide safe and human conditions, this so-called “coddling” is a cheaper and better business decision for the taxpayers than maintaining the status quo.
And then there’s that pesky consideration of the basic humanity we offer prison inmates. There is a fine line between necessarily austere and unpleasant prison conditions and subjecting inmates to unreasonable extremes of heat or cold. For the MDOC personnel who guard prisoners and the rest of society who await their eventual return to our communities, the words of a New Jersey life sentence inmate resonate: “You create Spartan conditions, you’re gonna get gladiators.”
After observing multiple executions, conducting Death Row interviews, and covering federal court interventions in Mississippi’s storied correctional systems for four decades, my thoughts on the current political tut-tutting over Cain’s effort to air condition the state’s prison system return to the stifling bedlam of Parchman’s old Maximum Security Unit 17 — once called “Little Alcatraz.”
It was a venue filled with the howling of mentally ill prisoners and the brutalities of those sane but past the point of any moral boundaries. It’s instructive to remember that Mississippi is less than 50 years from the demise of the old prison “trusty” system exposed in the landmark Gates v. Collier case in which the late U.S. District Judge William C. Keady declared Parchman Farm “an affront to modern standards of decency” with living quarters “unfit for human habitation.”
A half-century later, Mississippi prisoners still deserve humane conditions and treatment, no more and no less. Anyone who argues that Parchman inmates are remotely “coddled” simply hasn’t been inside the gates.