Air conditioner needs to last one final summerTake one hot summer, combine with a balky air conditioner, stir in 800 volatile prisoners and you wind up with this:

Trouble.One of the three large and expensive air-conditioning units ("chillers") that cool Salt Lake City's downtown jail is on its last legs. While it isn't usually needed, it does kick in when temperatures reach the 95- to 100-degree range. If a heat wave comes and the chiller goes, inmate tempers may start to rise along with the mercury and . . .

"It could be a serious problem," said Metro Jail division commander Capt. Paul Cunningham. "Any time you have inmates in an uncomfortable environment, they will probably vent their frustrations."

At this point you might be thinking, hey, I can't even afford air conditioning in my own home - why should my tax dollars be spent keeping prisoners cool?

Answer: Heat breeds unrest. Think back to the long, hot summers of 1967 and 1968, in which riots sprang up like weeds (granted, there were other reasons, such as the 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King). Funny thing about the weather - ever hear of a major riot in the middle of a dark, cold winter?

"The jail is kept cool to keep people mellow," said Salt Lake County Commission chief of staff David Marshall. "That's by design."

If the chiller went out during a hot spell, jail administrators would be facing a headache even without an inmate uprising. For one thing, inmates aren't the only ones in the jail. Guards and other jail workers are there, too - 24 hours a day. The chillers also cool the library, 3rd Circuit Courts and the City & County building.

What's more, Cunningham noted that inmates nowadays are quick to complain about adverse conditions to their families, lawyers, the courts, the ACLU. Even if the issue doesn't reach the level of a legal battle, "it becomes a huge administrative inconvenience just to explain to families why their boy is so hot," he said.

A new chiller costs $325,000. Normally it wouldn't be a big deal to replace it, but the Metro Jail is scheduled to be abandoned in favor of the new Salt Lake County jail on 3300 South and 900 West in just over a year, and two chillers will be sufficient to cool the remaining buildings. City and county officials don't want to sink a lot of money into new infrastructure just as the building's useful life is winding down.

Out of the available options - bite the bullet and buy a new chiller, keep things status quo and hope the chiller doesn't go, do all the preparation to buy a new chiller and then wait to see if it gives up the ghost - the County Commission will likely opt for the third. The Salt Lake City Council is scheduled to examine the issue later this month.

Of course, there is always a fourth option.

"We could just institute (a dress code of) shorts and a block of ice," said Commission Chairman Brent Overson. "You know, pina coladas."