Lowell Women’s Correctional Facility in Florida could benefit from air conditioning

Laurette Philipsen found herself resorting to desperate measures to escape the sweltering Florida heat while incarcerated at Lowell Correctional Facility. In the middle of the night, she sometimes jumped into the prison showers, fully clothed, to freshen up.

“Then you go back to bed and sleep for about an hour more. You wake up and your clothes are totally dry,” Philipsen said. New times. “And you would get up and jump in the shower again. And that’s how you spent your nights.”

Like many Florida prisons, the aging facility near Ocala lacks air conditioning in its dormitories. Philipsen consequently spent much of her eight-year sentence at the facility in a constant battle with the heat, finding little relief from fans in the dorms and opening the windows for comfort only to accommodate the insects she would later find crawling in bed.

“It was very, very difficult,” says Philipsen. “I mean, I’ve been home since 2018 and I can’t imagine with the climate we have today, living without air conditioning in these facilities.”

Philipsen and other prison reform advocates have long called attention to, and questioned, the lack of air conditioning in Florida prisons, especially as the state continues to see record temperatures. According to the Florida Department of Corrections (FDC), 18 of its 50 state prisons have air-conditioned dorms. Only about 24% of living units in state-run prisons are air-conditioned.

But while many facilities still remain without fresh air, the Florida Department of Corrections has confirmed new times that Lowell — the largest women’s prison in the state — could finally have air conditioning in its units.

An FDC spokesperson said the department was testing a portable air conditioning unit at the facility.

“Recently, the FDC hosted an on-site demonstration to observe the effectiveness of a portable evaporative air cooler in a living unit,” the department wrote in a statement to new times. “After evaluating the unit’s ability to provide additional climate control in these units, FDC has purchased three of the units to begin a longer term pilot of the unit and will continue to monitor their performance with the ultimate goal of to further mitigate the heat while maintaining a safe environment for inmates and staff.

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Portable evaporative coolers are an inexpensive alternative to the refrigerant-based method used in traditional window air conditioners and central air conditioning systems. Chillers pass warm air around a water source to cause evaporation, producing a flow of cool, moist air – hence their informal name: swamp coolers. They generally operate with lower efficiency in humid environments, although the manufacturers claim the units consume much less power than traditional AC power.

The department did not immediately respond to additional questions regarding the brand and type of portable evaporative coolers purchased, their cost and why Lowell was chosen for the pilot project.

Opened in April 1956 as Florida Correctional Institution, Florida’s first prison for women, the sprawling facility is set among horse farms and racetracks in North Central Florida and can house up to 3,000 women. Lowell used a geothermal cooling system in some dorms rather than air conditioning or fans, though agency officials admitted it didn’t work very well, according to a 2017 report. Miami Herald article by Julie K. Brown, whose reporting sparked a federal investigation into civil rights abuses at Lowell.

One of Florida’s most notorious prisons, Lowell has a history of sexual abuse and mistreatment among inmates, with a lawmaker who visited the facility in 2019 describing conditions inside as “less than human.” After a US Department of Justice investigation in 2020 found that rampant abuse had been swept under the rug by Lowell officials for years, former prisoners pushed for the facility to be closed.

And then there is the lack of air conditioning.

While the FDC maintains that each of its facilities has some form of climate control — whether it’s fans, exhaust systems or air conditioning — the nonprofit Prison Policy Initiative views the lack of CAs in most Florida prisons as a form of human rights violation. The group released a report in 2019 describing the lack of AC power in prisons in Florida and 12 other southern US states as “cruel and unusual punishment”.

As previously reported by new timesafter Florida Cares director Denise Rock pressured then-FDC secretary Julie Jones to stockpile cooling towels and personal ventilators for inmates in 2018, the corrections department began selling the moisture-wicking towels and shirts to the inmate canteen (where inmates purchase snacks, personal hygiene items, and other items ) in 2020.

Philipsen believes the state’s decision to install air conditioning in Lowell was a long time coming. She says forcing people to simmer in scorching Florida temperatures without fresh air is inhumane.

“They [are] incarcerated, but they are still residents of the state, and the legislature is responsible for all residents of the state of Florida,” she said. “You can’t choose who you want to be responsible for.

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