Is Air Conditioning a Human Right?

Air conditioners in China

The Eighth Amendment of the US constitution bans cruel and unusual punishment, yet in some Texas and Louisiana prisons, the temperature can get as high as a hundred degrees, and prisoners are dying. Apparently even the Supreme Court has dealt with this issue, deciding back in 1981 that “the Constitution does not mandate comfortable prisons.”

That was a long time ago, and our summers are a lot hotter now.

The New York Times describes how bad it can get and quotes one prisoner in Texas, who has heart disease and hypertension and is particularly sensitive to heat, and says “Air-conditioning to me wouldn’t be a comfort. It’s a necessity — it’s a medical necessity.”

“In the South, almost everybody has air-conditioning,” said Jeffrey S. Edwards, a lawyer for Mr. Cole. “This isn’t a luxury anymore. Almost everyone has it, except for these inmates.”

Jeff Edwards was interviewed by Robyn Bresnahan on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s The Current, along with Tracy Heffernan of the Advocacy Centre for Tenants in Ontario, and myself, Lloyd Alter of TreeHugger. Tracy described how there are minimum heating standards but there are none related to maximum heat. Most poor people do not have the opportunity to add it or the ability to pay for it.

I described how people used to live before air conditioning. Once AC came along, we no longer had to think about designing for hot temperatures, we just tossed in a box. Our designers got lazy. But I also try to make the case that it is not so simple, to say that it is a human right; if our buildings are designed and built properly, then one can get by either without AC or with just a little bit of it. But I am not in a cell in Texas.

Is air conditioning a human right? Tracy Heffernan and I concurred that it is no different from heating- our buildings must by habitable and healthy year round and shouldn’t kill people. That probably goes for prisoners in Texas too.

Listen to the heated debate at The Current