Here’s why it’s time to retool Florida’s outdated prison system | Editorial
Air conditioning in sweltering cell blocks is a start.
The entrance to Florida State Prison in Starke, as shown on Aug. 3. (AP Photo/Curt Anderson)
The entrance to Florida State Prison in Starke, as shown on Aug. 3. (AP Photo/Curt Anderson) [ CURT ANDERSON | AP ]
This article represents the opinion of the Tampa Bay Times Editorial Board.
Published Dec. 6, 2023

Justly convicted criminals should serve their time. But it’s another thing altogether to condemn inmates to brutally-hot conditions just because the state is too cheap and morally indifferent to provide a humane confinement. Florida needs to cool its prisons as part of a larger effort to modernize and right-size its penal system.

Three-quarters of inmate housing units in Florida don’t have air conditioning, Florida Department of Corrections secretary Ricky Dixon told a state senate committee recently. Consultants reported to the senate in November that installing air conditioning would cost $582 million. That price tag is clearly a non-starter for many in Florida’s conservative-run state government. But this was a foreseen crisis that was borne from neglect. And continuing to allow the prisons to stew presents a danger to inmates and prison guards alike.

The stifling heat in Florida’s prisons has been an unattended issue for years, but the matter flared anew amid this summer’s scorching heat. The Department of Corrections took baby steps in response by temporarily allowing inmates to wear shorts and T-shirts instead of the mandated undershirts, dress shirts and long pants for most of the day. But temperatures inside buildings without cooled air can soar 15 degrees higher than the temperature outdoors. That means the 100 degree temperatures in August put the thermometer inside some prisons above 115 degrees.

Many Florida prisons are decades old and were built before air conditioning was common. Installing cooling systems in these facilities admittedly would be expensive, as many older facilities lack the infrastructure to be outfitted with air handlers. But with the heat index in Florida regularly breaking 100 degrees — and with climate change promising hotter conditions ahead — air conditioning has become a health and safety issue for the prisons. And it’s key to addressing the prison staff shortage. Improving conditions inside the facilities will help attract and retain prison guards.

Senate Criminal and Civil Justice Appropriations chairperson Jennifer Bradley, a Republican whose North Florida district includes a number of prisons, has rightly pointed out that these conditions put Florida’s aging prison population at increasing risk. Florida has the third-largest prison system in the country, with about 86,000 inmates, behind only Texas (134,000) and California (101,000). But the average inmate in Florida is now about 42 years old, versus 32 years old in 1996. The number of elderly inmates is expected to continue increasing at a rapid pace, comprising more than a third of Florida’s total prison population by 2027.

Older inmates in older facilities is a dangerous mix. And it reflects the core problem with a prison system that is dated and underfunded. Auditors hired by the state reported in November that Florida’s prison system is “unsustainable” in the long run without an infusion of billions of dollars for renovations, staff support and at least one new facility. The firm KPMG said the state needed to decide whether it wants to “modernize,” “manage” or “mitigate” its prison problems. The estimated costs for a fix over 20 years could reach $12 billion.

It’s ridiculous to think that air conditioning makes prison a picnic. Florida has an obligation to provide a safe and humane environment for people who are held and work in our correctional facilities. The state needs an immediate plan for cooling these facilities; bills filed in the House and Senate for the 2024 legislative session that would require cooling systems are a good starting point. But Florida needs a broader vision for making the entire corrections system more efficient and responsive to the changing times.

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Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, Sherri Day, Sebastian Dortch, John Hill, Jim Verhulst and Chairman and CEO Conan Gallaty. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.