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Advocate for Florida prison inmates discusses conditions during extreme heat wave

Many of Florida's prisons are old and in poor shape.
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Many of Florida's prisons are old and in poor shape.

Denise Rock is the executive director of the advocacy group Florida Cares Charity Corp.

Advocates for inmates in Florida prisons have been working with the state Department of Corrections to mitigate the conditions there during an extreme heat wave. Many of these facilities have no air conditioning, which means the temperatures inside them can reach 15 degrees higher than those outside. WFSU spoke with Denise Rock, executive director of the advocacy group Florida Cares Charity Corp.

The Department of Corrections confirms it has temporarily lifted uniform restrictions, permitting inmates to wear shorts and t-shirts in non-air-conditioned spaces rather than dress shirts over t-shirts, long pants and closed-toe shoes.

Denise Rock has been pushing for further relief, such as increasing the number of fans and permitting inmates to take cold showers during the day. She’s been hearing from hundreds of inmates’ loved ones.

MM: What happens to people who are exposed to these temperatures without some type of relief? What happens to their health? What happens to their mental health?

DR: We have heard stories that we have not verified. We have heard stories that run the gamut from people that are standing at the phones, talking to their loved ones, and as I understand it, there are no fans in many of these places these phones are at to talk to their loved ones, so they will not stay on the telephone to continue that conversation. I’ve heard of people getting sick out there. We’ve heard of people having to go to Medical. We’ve heard of people saying that they had heat stroke. So we’ve had things that have run the gamut from not being able to get a reprieve from the heat. I’ve heard of people…We’ve gotten a bunch of letters from people, ‘I’ve been in here 20 years!’ ‘I’ve been in here 40 years -- it’s never been this hot!’ Well, they’re right -- it’s never been this hot. This is a record-breaking year. And it should be met with a record-breaking response.

MM: Besides the heat, overall, how would you describe conditions in Florida prisons?

DR: It’s like stepping back in time. And I don’t mean 20 years. I probably mean 30 to 40 years when you’re stepping back in time. Unfortunately, I think part of what’s happened -- it’s not necessarily the department’s fault, it’s our legislature’s fault for cutting money within the Department of Corrections and for not reducing our prison population. It is horribly sad to see what is our prison system, which is probably 25 percent of the 85,000 people are 50 years of age or older. So we’re not incarcerating the right people. We’re not incarcerating people that are committing crimes right now or people that are violent and need to be protected and taken out of society. We’re just incarcerating old men and women, and the more you look around, the more that looks like…retirement-age people. There are people in there in wheelchairs, walkers, canes. The people that are blind. And we have to just ask ourselves, ‘What in the world are we doing?’ We have crimes that are being committed today and those people are violent here. Most people age out of crimes, studies show.

MM: Why shouldn’t people who’ve done heinous crimes suffer?

DR: Just from my own perspective -- and I would think probably yours -- if you know that upwards of 90 percent of people are going to be released one day, right? Would you want this person that’s going to be your neighbor, would you want them to have been in prison, left without air conditioning, didn’t have food, where they were mistreated, disrespected and abused -- would you want that person to be your neighbor? Or would you want the prisoner to be your neighbor who received education, humane treatment, rehabilitation? I would prefer that second person because I think they would be less likely to break into my house and rob my house once they’re released. And I think as a society we need to start looking at that. ..We are doing people a disservice by trying to mistreat them while they’re incarcerated. Being incarcerated, being taken away from your family, not being home for the holidays, not seeing your children grow up, having these moments that are taking place in all the lives of people that you love and care about but you can’t be there? That’s the punishment.

Copyright 2023 WFSU. To see more, visit WFSU.

Margie Menzel
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