A prisoner with severe mental illness died in an overheated cell at Rikers Island, the biggest jail in New York City, this year. The exact cause of Jerome Murdough’s death is still under investigation, reports NPR, but the temperature in the cell when he was found was at least 100 degrees. His death called renewed attention to a long-standing problem: maintaining reasonable temperatures in jails and prisons. The high temperatures at some facilities can form a dangerous and even deadly combination with the aging inmate population.
Medications can make the mentally ill more susceptible to heat, and some prison guards say it’s not safe for them either. Dr. Susi Vassallo, a physician and New York University medical school professor, stood in an un-air-conditioned prison cell one summer. “It was, even after five minutes … absolutely stifling — it was inconceivable to live there 23 hours a day, day after day.” She said that for most people those conditions are uncomfortable, but that those with some health conditions, including high blood pressure and diabetes, or those taking certain medications, can be much more sensitive. For those prisoners, exposure to heat can lead to long-term health consequences or death.