The first air conditioning project is complete in a long-term process to cool all housing areas in the North Carolina prison system, and hundreds more beds are on schedule to be air-conditioned by the end of July.
Air conditioning work in one unit at Caswell Correctional Center was completed earlier this month.
Additional units will be completed in July, providing cooling for about 350 more offenders. Another 400 beds are scheduled for completion in September and October.
Secretary of Adult Correction Todd Ishee said retrofitting the state’s older correctional facilities with air-conditioning will offer safer and healthier environments for facility staff and offenders.
“The close conditions in an institutional setting can make the normal heat of a North Carolina summer even more uncomfortable,” Ishee said. “Emotions rise with the temperatures, amplifying the risk of conflict and possibly violence.”
The General Assembly appropriated $30 million in 2021 to begin upgrading the 40 state prisons that lack cooling systems, either partially or entirely. Currently, about 63 percent of all prison beds are in air-conditioned housing units. Non-cooled housing units include bed space for about 15,000 offenders.
“We’re thankful our Legislature and Governor heard us,” Ishee said, “and that they provided means for us to begin making the state’s correctional system a more accommodating workplace for our correctional professionals and a safer environment for everyone.”
Having appropriately cooled workplaces will also help with recruitment and retention of staff, a top concern for the agency.
The retrofitting of correctional institutions presents unique challenges. Many of the facilities are 50 years old or more with multiple buildings on each site.
Engineering teams must assess each housing unit to determine if it can support large commercial air conditioning units. Security requirements complicate upgrades to the building’s other systems, such as electrical and ductwork. Actual construction requires transferring offenders to other units or prisons until the work is completed.
To expedite the statewide project, and to make the Legislature’s appropriation go as far as possible, DAC hired five engineering design firms. When each completes its initial work on one prison, it immediately goes to work on the next prioritized location.
DAC also has had to work around the tight labor market and statewide construction boom, which have created high demand for HVAC contractors and skilled workers. To help with labor shortage issues, DAC has assigned offenders enrolled in the state’s Construction Apprenticeship Program who are working in the construction trades, which also supports the department’s rehabilitation and reentry mission by teaching them job skills that can lead to successful employment after prison.
To date, design and engineering work has been completed or is in process on two-thirds (66.7 percent) of non-air-conditioned offender bed spaces — 10,103 of 15,150. Construction is underway on projects to cool 2,900 beds.
DAC prioritized upgrades at five facilities initially, covering 4,000 offender bed spaces. Design work has been completed on all five, and construction is due for completion this year or in 2024.
Besides Caswell and Harnett correctional institutions, the first facilities are:
- N.C. Correctional Institution for Women
- Dan River Prison Work Farm
- Albemarle Correctional Institution.
In the meantime, DAC has a comprehensive heat stress management plan in place, ensuring facilities have methods to provide cooling fans, ice water and other heat mitigation measures for all staff and offenders. The plan contains education on recognizing signs of heat stress and heat illness and treating it.