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.
But when my dad and my uncles installed an air conditioner in the home of my Mamaw Salter, she would have none of it. She never used it. At the age of 77, Emma Etta Lane Salter had never owned an air conditioner and she wasn’t in the notion of changing that status. She relied instead on an oscillating electric fan and she had a ready collection of hand-held, wrist-powered funeral homes fans decorated with portraits of Jesus and the sun’s ray penetrating banks of heavenly clouds.
Somehow, my Mamaw survived life -- and apparently the violation of her 8th Amendment rights by the Great Depression and the responsibilities of raising five children on a family farm - without air conditioning. She only lived to be 101. At 95, she was still attending to 60 head of beef cattle and a dozen laying hens
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 32 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. To provide less is an abdication by society of the basic human decency that we punish criminals for failing to observe.
Medical and dental care should be provided. The mentally ill should not be incarcerated for the crime of being mentally ill. Torture and true neglect have no place in the corrections policy of civilized people.
But is air conditioning really part of that obligation? It was 1993 before 50 percent of American households had air conditioning. The broader question is just how comfortable prisons should be?
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.
(Daily Corinthian and syndicated columnist Sid Salter can be contacted at 601-507-8004 or firstname.lastname@example.org.)