The notion that the taxpayers of Mississippi, Texas, Louisiana, Alabama, and Florida are submitting Death Row prisoners in those states to “cruel and unusual punishment” by not providing air conditioning for their cells is news indeed to people of a certain age across the South.
The ACLU argues that not providing air conditioning to Death Row inmates violates their 8th Amendment rights. In a prior Texas case, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has agreed with that argument.
Like it was yesterday, I remember the first time my family felt the absolute miracle of the operation of two window unit air conditioners my father bought at Sears. My twin sister and I were six years old in 1965 and we stood for hours in front of the billowing cold air, watching the air conditioner in the living room like it was a television.
For a lower middle class family living in a small teacher’s home in rural Mississippi, we felt like the Rockefellers – wealthy, spoiled, and, well, cool. In that era, the vast majority of schools, churches, stores, public and government buildings were not air conditioned. It was seen by society as a luxury, not a necessity.
The air conditioning in the house was so good that the very next year, Dad bought the first car our family had ever owned with air conditioning as well – a brown, two-tone 1966 Chevy Bel Air.
I’ve conducted interviews on Death Row at the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman and I did so back when the current state execution chamber – Unit 17 – was state’s maximum security unit and housed the gas chamber.
Unit 17 – once called “Little Alcatraz” – was stifling hot. It was a venue filled with the howling of mentally ill prisoners and the brutalities of those sane but past the point of any moral boundaries. There was a smell there that I can only describe as a mixture of sweat, testosterone and a neglected public restroom.
Today, Unit 17 is a rather pristine and sanitized place used only for executions. The maximum security unit at Parchman is now Unit 29 and while it’s not the Hilton, it’s far better than the old days at Unit 17.
I do not subscribe to the “bread and water” theory of incarceration for even the worst criminals. They are human beings and deserve nutrition, shelter and sanitary living conditions.
But is air conditioning really part of that obligation? It was 1993 before 50 percent of American households had air conditioning.
The notion that failing to provide air conditioning for murderers who are being punished for their crimes at the state prison is one that just seems laughable to those of us who are old enough to remember when none of us enjoyed those comforts.
My folks never told me about my constitutional rights to air conditioning. They did tell me to stay out of trouble or that I’d get sent to prison – and that prison was a bad, uncomfortable place.
SID SALTER is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at (601) 507-8004 or firstname.lastname@example.org.