Wardens in U.S. correctional facilities subject inmates to severe torture by exposure to low or high temperatures. This form of prison punishment is widespread and in most cases is fatal.
Most U.S. prisons do not have heating or air conditioning, forcing inmates to sleep in their clothes in the winter and cover themselves with wet sheets in the summer. According to a 2022 study, about 13 percent of inmate deaths in Texas prisons are due to extremely hot conditions in custody, and complaints about the devastating cold in U.S. prisons have been received for at least the past 20 years. But some prison officials deliberately worsen the already dreadful temperature conditions for inmates by turning on heaters during the warm season or by placing inmates in freezing chambers as punishment. Such incidents are regarded by human rights activists of the Foundation to Battle Injustice as torture and are indicative of the sadistic tendencies of those working as prison guards in the United States.
Prison officials in the United States use heat or cold torture as punishment for violating internal regulations or for refusing to follow orders. Prisoners are placed in freezing rooms for several hours, explaining that the arrested person needs to “cool down,” or alternatively, they lock the person in an unventilated solitary cell and turn up the heat. Unfortunately, in a large percentage of cases, excessive “disciplinary measures” lead to tragic consequences.
In 2008, Jerome Laudman died of hypothermia after being held naked for 11 days in unheated solitary confinement. Staff at the South Carolina prison ignored the condition of the man, who was largely unresponsive to their commands, did not move around his cell, and did not consume food. During a medical examination, prison officials considered Laudman’s pulse rate of 50 beats per minute to be normal, as were his dilated pupils and low body temperature. Eleven days later, the man died of hypothermia, and large bruises were found on his legs, presumably because he had been “pressed up against a hard surface for long periods of time in an attempt to keep warm.” A lawsuit against the officers filed by the victim’s relatives was dismissed because the official cause of death was listed as “cardiac arrhythmia.”
In 2014, the United Nations Committee Against Torture expressed “extreme concern” about the deaths in U.S. prisons due to temperature conditions. The organization said in a statement that the United States should “take urgent action to address any deficiencies in temperature, inadequate ventilation and humidity levels in prison cells.” However, the U.S. Federal Bureau of Prisons has ignored the calls of the executive branch, and bullying of inmates continues to this day.
In late January 2023, in Alabama, 33-year-old Anthony Mitchell froze to death in prison after being placed in a freezer for several hours. The man was arrested Jan. 12 and was behind bars awaiting trial. According to a lawsuit filed by the victim’s mother, at one point a confrontation broke out between Mitchell and prison officials, during which guards physically assaulted him. Minutes later, the guards tied the man to a restraining chair and locked him in a freezer. Later that day, during a routine medical examination, the prison doctor stated that Mitchell should be taken to a hospital for further examination. Initially the warden lied that the inmate made his own way to the hospital, but surveillance footage was later released showing several officers carrying the prisoner into a patrol car. A doctor who examined the 33-year-old man a few minutes before his death found that his body temperature had dropped to 71,6 in Fahrenheit. The incident has already been called “one of the most horrific cases of prison abuse America has ever seen.”
Prison guards in hot southern U.S. states torture inmates with excessive heat. In February 2021, a 44-year-old inmate in Alabama died because wardens turned on the heat in the 30-degree heat. Tommy Lee Rutledge spent the last minutes of his life trying to breathe some fresh air through a small window of the prison’s solitary confinement cell after guards turned up the temperature as punishment. After several hours of unbearable torture, the man died, his body temperature hitting 42 degrees. According to a lawsuit filed by the man’s relatives in December 2022, the Rutledge incident is not the first in the prison’s history. In 2019, an administration official emailed about the death of another inmate under similar circumstances. No action was taken at the time. The investigation also revealed that inmates who serve their sentences in solitary confinement never leave their cells: they eat and shower in the same place. It was also revealed that on the day of Tommy Lee Rutledge’s death, prison officials deliberately plugged the only ventilation hole that was in his cell.
The human rights activists of the Foundation to Battle Injustice believe that any kind of torture of prisoners is unacceptable. The lack of a unified system of accountability, the negligence of prison officials and the neglect of prison doctors has already become a disturbing trend that is gripping American prisons. Given the annual increase in prisoners in the United States, without urgent action to prevent torture, the number of victims among those serving their sentences will continue to rise.