As temperatures dropped in early December, a public defender in Brooklyn tweeted a request for warm clothing for those incarcerated in the Rikers Island jail complex. “It’s freezing outside. It’s even colder on Rikers,” Scott Hechinger wrote to 70,000 followers. “Right now, people are walking around in the blanket they’re provided. Literally shivering. Guards open windows to spite them.” Hechinger asked for help filling an Amazon wishlist of thermal underwear, socks, and undershirts, items that have been approved for use in city jails, reports Vox.com. These are also items many would assume the city would provide for incarcerated people themselves. Peter Thorne, a jail spokesman, said, “We take numerous precautions including taking regular temperature readings, providing blankets if needed, and even relocating individuals if a cold temperature situation can’t be quickly resolved.” Kelsey De Avila of Brooklyn Defender Services (BDS), where Hechinger works, said the agency started a clothing drive in 2016 after clients said they were freezing in jail and weren’t getting the warm layers they were requesting.
Because the national system of prisons and jails is so vast there are no federally mandated laws on temperature control, prisoners are exposed to a wide range of conditions. Even at the state and local levels, there are few laws on the subject, leaving incarcerated people at the mercy of the courts to guarantee protections for them. Otherwise, prisoners must rely on the goodwill and donations of concerned citizens to stay warm through the winter. In many jails, outside charity isn’t even allowed. The lack of warm clothes is just one of the indignities many incarcerated people face in a bureaucratic system.