I served five and a half months in Federal Prison Camp Alderson, as Inmate 35538-016. I was there from February through July – which means I experienced the end of winter, spring and most of summer. Alderson is set in the mountains of West Virginia. The complex , which is over 100 years old, is known for housing “famous” people like Martha Stuart, Billie Holliday and Lolita Lebron

The housing units that have been used for the last few decades are different – there are two, two-floor buildings that boarder a large square field that have two “ranges” on each side. 

Sometimes the heat worked. Sometimes it didn’t.  We had the inverse problem in the summer. When the air conditioner did not work – the air in the range was suffocatingly thick. To make matters worse, the showers – which ran at near-scalding temperatures – added more humidity to the air.

It was uncomfortable to say the least. On those days when we didn’t have any air circulating, women who were prone to anxiety or had asthma would suffer greatly. I can’t They would pace frenetically or rock back and forth on the floor because the inability to breathe exacerbated their anxiety triggering a panic attack. 

If you were thinking, “Why didn’t you just go outside”, the answer is we were not allowed. COVID restrictions meant the camp was in “red status” which meant inmates stayed inside except when going to get meals or for the occasional 1 hour of “recreation” time. 

The conditions I experienced are nowhere near as bad as what other individuals in other prisons face.   Right before Labor Day, the New York Times ran a story about the inhuman conditions in Lopez State Jail in Edinburg, Texas. The story presents a heart-breaking account of how the lack of air conditioning affects human beings. The journalist reported temperatures of 91 degrees but much higher temperatures have been reported many Texas prisons. 

Those interviewed talk about how the heat affects them physically, psychologically and emotionally. Prolonged exposure to extreme heat causes multiple health problems including dehydration and heat stroke and exacerbate preexisting conditions that affect the kidneys, liver, heart, brain and lungs.  But it can also result in death. In 2015, the University of Texas published a report of deaths in Texas prisons due to heat 

Texas isn’t the only place where high heat threatens inmates’ wellbeing. A recent report by the Marshall Project details similar conditions and the effects on individuals living in prisons in Missouri, New York, California, New Jersey, and Washington state. 

Some people say that people in prison don’t deserve to be comfortable. The logic goes something like this, “If you didn’t want to be in those kinds of conditions, you should have thought about that before committing a crime”.   Prison conditions should be an “additional punishment”. The punishment that results from being convicted of a crime is being removed from society and loss of individual freedoms and full capacity for self-determination. 

Under no circumstances should prison conditions violate individuals’ human rights.  And given that 95% of those in prison will ultimately be released back into society, it’s important to recognize the short and long term damage that is done to human beings forced to live in inhumane conditions. 

Conditions are far worse in America’s prisons than in any other industrialized nation in the world.  As Marc Howard illustrates in Unusually Cruel, Prisons, Punishment and the Real American Exceptionalism, America is exceptional at being the worst in every aspect of administering criminal justice systems. In other countries, the conditions in prisons are designed to rehabilitate and prepare a person to successfully reenter society. They do this by ensuring incarcerated individuals are treated with dignity.  

Courts evaluating claims on prisoners’ rights violations focus only on their constitutional rights established by the Eighth Amendment and are looking to see if prison officials display “deliberate indifference”.  More often than not, courts’ decisions’ justify the barbaric treatment incarcerated individuals receive. 

It would be a mistake to think that pervasiveness of the inhumane conditions in America’s prison is too big of a problem to solve. Initiatives like Restoring Promise provide one example of a path forward. Fixing the problem requires being honest about the current conditions and refusing to stand by and allow American government at any level – local, state or federal – to engage in human rights abuses.