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Inmate dormitories at Louisiana State Penitentiary, such as this one photographed in July 2011, have heating in the winter and cooling by fans and open windows in the summer, but no air conditioning. A judge ruled earlier in this year that that constituted cruel and unusual punishment, but installation is on hold pending a state appeal. (The Times-Picayune/Landov)

Hot Prisons Could Be Deadly For U.S. Inmates, Advocates Warn

by Alisa Roth
Jul 24, 2014

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Alma Murdough and her daughter Cheryl Warner hold a photo of Murdough's son Jerome on March 12, at her home in the Queens borough of New York. Jerome Murdough died last month in a Rikers Island jail cell that multiple city officials say was at least 100 degrees when his body was discovered.

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Alisa Roth

Earlier this year, a prisoner with severe mental illness died in an overheated cell at Rikers Island, the biggest jail in New York City. The exact cause of Jerome Murdough's death is still under investigation, 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 U.S. facilities can form a dangerous — 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 grew up in Texas, so she's not afraid of heat. But the physician and NYU medical school professor still remembers her reaction when she stood in an un-air-conditioned prison cell one summer.

"When you closed the ... doors, they had just little dots in 'em, which provided any ventilation from the outside," she said. "It was, even after five minutes ... it was absolutely stifling — it was inconceivable to live there 23 hours a day, day after day."

Vassallo is an expert on heat-related illnesses who is often called to testify in lawsuits about temperatures in jails and prisons. 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. And the numbers of inmates prone to this sensitivity, particularly the elderly and the mentally ill, have been growing.

Prisoners' rights lawyers and others have been arguing, literally for decades, about what constitutes a reasonable temperature. One lawyer, Mercedes Montagnes, filed a lawsuit last year demanding that the heat index — a calculation of heat and humidity — on Louisiana's death row not go above 88 degrees. A judge agreed, according to the Baton Rouge Advocate, and ordered air conditioning installed, but that's on hold as the state appeals the decision.

Montagnes said prisoners have a right to reasonable temperatures and can't escape the heat the way unincarcerated Americans would.

"Those individuals have the ability to go to a freezer, to get cold water, to go to a mall, to go to a movie theater ... to take action in order to mitigate the effect of the heat on them," she said.

The argument for air-conditioning prisons has found allies in some unlikely places. Last year, a group of prison guards from Texas joined a lawsuit against the state's Department of Corrections.

Lance Lowry, a former prison guard in Texas who now works with the guards' union, says the corrections officers have many of the same heat-sensitive health conditions as prisoners — obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, even mental illness.

"Officers frequently suffer from heat cramps and a lot of heat illnesses," Lowry said.

He says prisoners are harder to manage in the heat, too — there are more fights and more psychiatric emergencies.

Texas is among several states facing lawsuits over temperatures in its correctional facilities — of the more than 150,000 prison beds in the state, only about 550 are climate-controlled. Because of that litigation, state officials wouldn't talk on the record, but the state corrections department said in a statement that it is trying to mitigate the high temperatures. Those efforts include purchasing more than $50,000 in industrial-grade cooling fans to test at seven facilities.

Former Texas warden Keith Price, now a professor of criminology and sociology at West Texas A&M University, said that it's important to accommodate heat-sensitive prisoners, but that inmates also need to acknowledge that prison is not a five-star hotel.

"You know, they don't get to go get a cheeseburger whenever they want to, either," Price said. "So, I mean, you know there's a certain amount of things that you give up when you become incarcerated."

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Why Don't We Eat Our Own Fish?

Jul 24, 2014 (Here & Now / WBUR-FM)

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Author Paul Greenberg often asks the question: Why are we importing our fish?

In his new book “American Catch: The Fight for Our Local Seafood,” Greenberg explains how lopsided the U.S. fishing market really is.

Most of the fish Americans eat is imported — about 90 percent. At the same time, the U.S. is exporting about one-third of its catch.

So why aren’t we eating what we catch?

Greenberg joins Here & Now’s Jeremy Hobson to discuss what he calls the “great American fish swap,” which he says is destructive to our environment and hurts our local economies.

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Facebook Reports Surging Profits

Jul 24, 2014 (Here & Now / WBUR-FM)

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Facebook reported on Wednesday that its profit more than doubled and revenue topped estimates for the ninth straight quarter.

More than 60 percent of the social network’s ad revenue now comes from advertising on mobile devices, according to eMarketer, after earlier concerns that the site wouldn’t be able to do well on mobile devices.

Derek Thompson of The Atlantic joins Here & Now’s Meghna Chakrabarti to discuss what this could mean for the future, both of the company and of mobile marketing in general.

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Arturo, the only polar bear in Argentina, lives in captivity at a zoo in Mendoza. The plight of the "sad bear" has spawned more than 400,000 signatures on a petition to get him moved to a "better life" in Canada. (Getty Images)

Zoo In Argentina Says 'Sad Bear' Too Old To Go To Canada

Jul 24, 2014 (WBUR-FM)

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Despite a public outcry that resulted in more than a half-million petition signatures and a personal appeal by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Arturo, Argentina's "sad bear," has been deemed too old to migrate to Canada.

As we reported on Saturday, Arturo the polar bear, dubbed the "world's saddest animal," lost his enclosure mate two years ago and appears to have fallen into a deep depression. Pictures of the animal moping around his habitat at the Mendoza Zoo attracted international concern and launched a petition to have him moved to a facility in Winnipeg.

But the Mendoza Zoo says at 28 (some sources say 29), Arturo is just "too old" to be sedated and moved.

The BBC says:

"The director of Mendoza zoo in western Argentina, Gustavo Pronotto, said that moving him would be a risk.

" 'Arturo is close to his caretakers,' Mr Pronotto told Associated Press news agency. 'We just want everyone to stop bothering the bear.'

"A panel of vets in Argentina also decided that keeping him in Argentina was the best option."

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One of the three stamps issued recently to commemorate Syrian leader Bashar Assad's presidential election victory. (Via Syrian Arab News Agency)

Syrian President Issues New Stamps, But Can't Deliver The Mail

Jul 24, 2014 (WBUR-FM)

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As the Middle East froths with blood — from Iraq to Syria to the Gaza Strip — a commemorative set of three stamps depicting Syrian President Bashar Assad may not seem hugely relevant.

But these pieces of paper tell us much about the power struggles behind the slaughter in Syria. Issued this week to commemorate Assad's victory in the country's recent presidential elections, they are the latest in a long line of postal projections of orderly power over chaos.

However, the election he commemorates was a poll in which no one in rebel-held areas could vote, and oversees a postal system that couldn't deliver a letter to those places, either.

It's not just Assad who uses this kind of propaganda. Large chunks of his country have fallen under the control of the ferocious extremists now known as the Islamic State. They tweeted a picture of a building in the city of Raqqa with a sign that reads: "The civilian post office of the city of Raqqa."

The picture was cited as evidence of the Islamic State having a postal service, but a resident there who uses the nickname Abu Ibrahim al-Raqqawi, because he's afraid of the extremists, says the picture is a lie.

"We haven't had postal service for a year," he says.

But the mere act of issuing the stamps is a tactic to enhance legitimacy, an attempt by Assad to strengthen his claim to be a legitimate leader ruling over a functioning state.

It's a strategy that dates back to the early days of the mail in Syria. The first stamps were printed in 1863, writes Donald M. Reid, in the Journal of Contemporary History. Syria was part of the Ottoman Empire then, so it had Turkish stamps. These were decorated with calligraphy and Arabesque patterns, likely in accordance with Islamic tradition of non-representative art.

But when the empire was shaken by World War I, which would eventually finish it off, there was a change in tack. Stamps suddenly depicted military victories and even the sultan himself.

In the great colonial carve-up of the region that followed the empire's end, Syria fell under the control of France. The French adorned their stamps with images of Syrian scenery and monuments — as well as some telling hints about the future.

On one, the pretty port of Alexandretta was overstamped with the word "ALAWITE" in French and Arabic. In an effort to subdue the angry country, France split the turf into four areas - including one for the Muslim Alawite sect. The French also recruited the sect disproportionately into the army, hoping they would counterbalance the rebellious Sunnis. Many historians trace a line between the influence the sect gained during this period and the rise to power of the Alawite Assad family.

Syria won independence in 1946 and experienced a series of military coups, the last of which brought Hafez Assad — father of the current president — to power in 1971. Assad was an air force commander but in every one of his stamps, he appears in civilian clothing to "enhance his legitimacy," writes Reid.

And then came the son, Bashar Assad, who has led the country since his father's death in 2000 and presided over a brutal war that's now in its fourth year and left the country in ruins.

His opponents have drawn him as a butcher and a devil, while the stamps are an attempt to counterbalance those images. Assad is portrayed in front of a church, bolstering a role he often plays as a protector of minorities. On another stamp, he draws on an image beloved of Arab strongmen and seeks to rebut the idea that he faces a broad rebellion: it shows a crowd of happy, representative citizens dwarfed by the authoritative face of their leader.

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