Last fall, the North Carolina General Assembly approved $30 million to address a long-standing issue in the state prison system: The lack of air conditioning in all or parts of nearly 40 facilities.
With summer approaching, none of the actual construction has started. Prison officials in Gov. Roy Cooper’s administration hope to have the first three projects complete around the start of next year.
“They’re in the design phase,” state prisons spokesperson John Bull said. “These are big, big projects.” Bull said the effort is a high priority.
Complaints about the heat arise every year, from inmates and prison employees. Most prisons have at least some air conditioning, but 15,400 beds are in unairconditioned rooms, according to a breakdown provided by the state.
That’s nearly 40% of the state’s capacity, spread over 39 facilities, including the North Carolina Correctional Institute for Women in Raleigh, the system’s largest facility for women. Three-quarters of the beds there don’t have air conditioning.
“Inside NCCIW it can get upwards of 100 degrees in the summer,” said Kristie Puckett Williams, the North Carolina American Civil Liberties Union’s deputy director for engagement and mobilization. Puckett Williams and the ACLU have long advocated for better prison conditions in North Carolina.
Women in the facility sometimes “soak their night clothes in water and sleep in their clothes to stay cool,” Puckett Williams said. A training program that once brought shelter dogs into the prison stopped in the summer months several years ago because it was too hot for the animals.
The heat is a complaint for correctional officers as well, and the system has struggled for years to hire enough people. That has gotten worse during the pandemic. As of last month the system’s functional vacancy rate—which factors in people who are out sick or for other reasons, in addition to unfilled jobs—was 33%.
Top system leaders, and rank-and-file employees, have repeatedly acknowledged the danger inherent in understaffed prisons.
“It’s very hard to work in that environment, especially during the summertime,” one officer, who asked to remain anonymous to avoid reprisals at work, told WRAL News. “It’s extremely, extremely hot, and you know we have to wear additional gear, like a stab-proof vest.”
“It’s an unbearable environment,” the officer said. “Some people are leaving because of that.”
Some buildings at NCCIW, which houses more than 1,200 people, date back to the 1930s, and the campus will be one of the first prisons retrofitted with air conditioning. Along with NCCIW, Dan River Prison Work Farm and Caswell Correctional Center are the top priorities, and upgrades for all three facilities are in the design phase, Bull said.
Design work began last week for two other prisons: Albemarle and Harnett correctional institutions, he said.
Bull said several things complicate the effort, including the high demand right now for construction crews across the economy, as well as supply chain issues.
“The market is saturated,” Bull said in an email. “HVAC vendors [are] all busy.”
Among the competitors: School systems around the state, which got more than $5.5 billion in federal funding over the past two years for COVID-19 response. Many plan to use some of the money for ventilation upgrades, and a survey of school construction needs last year pegged school HVAC needs close to $700 million statewide.
Bull also said the state’s construction process takes time, and that the state Department of Public Safety started prep work on these projects last year, before the state budget was signed into law in mid-November. Bidding by construction firms had to wait until February, Bull said, because the state budget had to be certified first.
That process involves back-and-forth between state agencies and the governor’s budget office to finalize budget details. The Department of Public Safety’s portion of the budget was certified Jan. 25, according to the governor’s office.
Bull said five design firms were selected last month. They’ll handle HVAC design work at all 39 prisons. Construction will start later this year, he said.
“Some of these prisons date back to the 1930s and will require some maintenance upgrades to be done to prepare for air-conditioning installation,” Bull said in an email. “Some of these facility air-conditioning projects involve up to a dozen buildings in a single prison. It’s vastly more complicated than an HVAC replacement/upgrade in your home.”
Transfers may also be necessary while work is done.
“Prison work is not favored by industry,” Bull said in an email. “We are working to overcome that challenge by relocating offenders out of work areas and/or isolating facilities to enable easier access for HVAC vendors.”