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What is the appropriate temperature for jail/prison housing units?


We get periodic complaints from inmates about the temperature in their cells. Sometimes we do issue extra blankets but need to watch for hoarding. Is there an ideal temperature setting for institutional housing units?


There are recommended ranges of temperature (often called comfort zones) which can vary by season. The problem is there is an objective component but also a subjective component (not everybody "feels" temperature or comfort the same). Since heating and cooling systems in institutions are complex, try to achieve a "happy medium" within the recommended ranges.

This issue is not as simple as temperature. Thermal comfort is a combination of temperature, humidity, activity levels, metabolic rate, clothing, season, etc. It gets really complex. To appreciate how complex calculating thermal comfort is, look at the factors needed for this Thermal Comfort Tool online calculator.

The American Correctional Association standards, which are voluntary unless you are undergoing accreditation with them, state:

"Temperature and humidity are mechanically raised or lowered to acceptable comfort levels." The previous version of that standard used to refer to "acceptable summer and winter comfort zones."

The general standard concerning building comfort levels is ASHRAE 55 Thermal Environmental Conditions for Human Occupancy. (2010). Builders and maintenance folks tend to conform to ASHRAE 55 standards in terms of building thermal comfort. They are not mandatory unless they have been adopted as part of a jurisdiction's building code or environment climate codes.

A given temperature will not meet the needs of everybody in the same environment. While not a jail or prison but an office environment, this article The Thermal Comfort Zone concludes that it may not be possible to provide thermal conditions that please all occupants all the time (but that hasn't stopped facilities managers from trying):

"ASHRAE indicates thermal comfort is achieved when environmental conditions satisfy 80 percent of office occupants suggests just how difficult it is to please all occupants even some of the time."

Bottom line: consider this in your decision making

  1. How many inmates are requesting extra blankets? If it is just a few, you are probably within norms, but might want to honor those requests. Everybody feels temperature differently, so those requests can be legitimate. So unless there is a hoarding issue, or it has become a "game", perhaps second blankets are easier than inmate grievances, litigation, and behavior issues.
  2. Keep in mind some differences: 70 degrees with low humidity might feel cool to an inactive population while staff who are moving around feel just fine. So anything in a range of 69-76 degrees could be acceptable in terms of thermal comfort depending on levels of humidity (and factoring in ambient conditions in summer or winter).
  3. A good solution is to get your agency to request an assessment by a legitimate building services provider or institutional heating and cooling systems specialist to measure comfort levels in all housing units. It is important to document your efforts at providing an acceptable housing environment for the offenders.

Here is how a major jail system deals with issues around "abnormal temperature conditions" . It might give you some ideas for policy and procedure. It actually comes in collaboration their Department of Environment Health:

  1. What temperatures (indoor and outdoor) are considered outside the normal range and require notifications/actions?
    The Department requires that tour commanders notify the warden and the assistant commissioner for environmental health of any temperatures that are below 68° F. in all are as and above 80° F. in medical, mental health, and air conditioned areas. The assistant commissioner for environmental health initiates two hour temperature monitoring, so that decisions can be made whether inmates need to be relocated. For temperatures below 68° F. maintenance is notified to repair the heating system. Inmates are provided with additional blankets, clothing if necessary, and hot beverages. Inmates are relocated if the heat will not be repaired in a reasonable number of hours and the temperature remains below 68° F., if maintenance determines that the heat cannot be repaired, or if the temperature is below 60° F. Again, this is at the discretion of the assistant commissioner for environmental health and security. At temperatures at or above 80° F., maintenance is notified to repair the air conditioning, ice is provided for the inmates, two fans are placed in the housing areas, and it is determined how many heat sensitive inmates are housed in the area. Heat sensitive inmates will be relocated if the temperatures reaches or exceeds 85° F., if the temperature remains above 80° F. for a period of time and maintenance is unable to resolve the issue within a reasonable amount of time, or if the air conditioning cannot be repaired that day. Any non-heat sensitive inmates will remain in the housing area.
  2. At what temperatures, both hot and cold, is outdoor recreation restricted?
    At what high and low temperatures is it prohibited? Outdoor recreation is canceled at the discretion of the tour commander since it is voluntary and inmates may decide not to participate.
  3. How is the status of "heat risk inmate" conveyed by medical staff to correctional staff?
    The medical staff submit a heat sensitive identification form to the clinic captain.
  4. What are the temperature thresholds for heat risk subjects?
    In general, heat sensitive inmates are housed in air conditioned areas. The Department makes notification of high temperatures at 80° F. allowing time to correct the air conditioning deficiency before we would relocate the heat sensitive inmates at 85° F.
  5. What discretionary language, if any, is used to permit judgment calls with regard to allowing outdoor recreation?
    Outdoor recreation is held at the discretion of the tour commander.