John Oliver on heat in US prisons: ‘This is a deadly situation’

·2 min read

John Oliver has raised the alarm about the dangers of heat in US prisons and how a lack of air conditioning can often be fatal for prisoners.

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The Last Week Tonight host kicked off his show by stating that “heat in prisons is a big problem” and that in some of the hottest states, over half of prisons lack air conditioning. In Texas, it’s nearly 75% of facilities.

Nearly 40% of prisoners have a chronic condition which can be worsened by the heat and lead to heatstroke or death. “The only time getting murdered by the heat is acceptable is if you’ve committed the crime of being a lobster,” Oliver said.

The summer months also lead to an increase in suicide watches and incidents of self-harm.

The oft-used argument is that the cost of installation is too great, but Oliver told the story of Texas once spending $7m on a lawsuit fighting the addition for a single one prison while the cost would have been just $4m.

“In some prisons there is climate control – just not for the prisoners,” he said, telling the story not just of staff receiving access to cool air but also, in one instance, an on-site pig farm.

“Correction systems do seem to acknowledge that they have a problem with heat. It’s just they often try to treat it with ridiculous half-measures,” he added, while showing a video instructing staff how to help overheated prisoners by fanning them and flicking water on their face. Oliver said it’s “just not going to cut it”.

He told the story of a man who received an 11-month sentence for cashing a bad cheque, and one day collapsed with a 109F body temperature. He received delayed medical treatment and later died. “Prisoners in this country are desperately uncomfortable and sometimes dying due to the heat and no one seems to give enough of a shit to do anything about it,” he said.

It’s not just Texas, but Louisiana, Alabama, Florida and Michigan, Oliver added.

“This is a deadly situation and it’s only going to get worse especially because summers are getting hotter and hotter,” he said.

Oliver ended the show by stating that it was not a situation with nuance. “This one is really pretty straightforward: we shouldn’t be cooking prisoners to death,” he said.

He added: “Locking human beings in rooms with a heat index of 150 degrees begs the question: how on earth can anyone anywhere think it’s OK to do that.”

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