My cellblock at Ironwood State Prison (ISP) in Blythe, California, rose out of the sands of the Colorado desert region of the Sonoran Desert. Prisons such as ISP are often put in remote areas away from large population centers.
The two summers of my time spent at ISP were blistering hot. The inmate housing units are not air conditioned; swamp coolers are used instead. Unlike air-conditioners, the efficiency of swamp coolers, also known as evaporative coolers, depends on the outside temperature and relative humidity. Swamp coolers work best when the relative humidity is low, and their results vary. They will lower the temperature, but not to a specified level—that is, you can’t just program them to the temperature you want them to cool to or maintain.
The summer monsoons that regularly hit Blythe raise the humidity with the moisture they bring in. That, in combination with typical summer temperatures ranging from the midnineties to over 100 and into the high teens, means the cooling systems are ineffective.
When I was there, the warming of the desert caused guards to scale back the activities on the prison yard, which increased the inmate’s irritation and anxiety levels. There were too few showers to allow everyone to maintain a comfortable body temperature, and when the yard was closed, 250 men were locked in a Costco-warehouse-size building, with no window and only one door. I would consciously go into a semiexistential state where I’d lie still on my bunk, stare at a focal point on the wall or ceiling, and drift for long periods of time until we could leave the dorm and walk around in the suffocating heat and humidity. Some men got sick and were taken to the infirmary. Men with asthma suffered from the hot, heavy air we had to breathe—air that smelled of machine lubricants.
Heat in US Prisons and Jails
In 2015, the Sabin Center for Climate Change, Columbia Law School, did a study of two important and largely ignored questions: “How will increased temperatures and heat waves caused by climate change affect prisons, jails, and their staff and inmate populations? And what can correctional departments do to prepare for greater heat and minimize the dangers it poses?” The Sabin Center reports that “climate scientists forecast with a high degree of confidence that average temperatures in the U.S. will rise throughout this century and that heat waves will become more frequent, more severe, and more prolonged.”
Other significant findings of the study include the following:
- Rising temperatures and increasingly harsh extreme-heat events will jeopardize the health of inmates and correctional [staff].
- Adapting . . . systems and facilities to greater heat and the other impacts of climate change will become an urgent challenge for correctional departments.
- The success or failure of correctional adaptation efforts will be measured in human lives as well as public dollars.
- Until now, the implications of climate change for corrections [facilities] have been largely disregarded by both correctional administrators and public officials working on climate adaptation policy.
The study correctly focuses on existing problems in the correctional sector that exacerbate the need for intervention into a known and growing concern. Some of these existing problems include, for example, that
nearly 3,000 individual jurisdictions . . . operate [prisons and] jails. [The scope of curing the known problems created by this diversity must be unified and made efficient and predictable.] Close quarters and mass incarceration mean high-population density in correctional facilities. [This] overcrowding is a significant problem. . . . Risk factors for succumbing to heat-related illness, including advanced age, poor mental and physical health, and use of medications, are prevalent among the 2.2 million US prisoners.
Here are some of the study’s recommendations that address these problems:
- Reduce the size of the incarcerated population.
- Reduce inmates’ and correctional officers’ susceptibility to heat stress.
- Phase out the [obsolete and] most vulnerable facilities.
- Retrofit adaptable facilities by maximizing passive cooling . . . [solutions such as the use of] cool roofs, green roofs, awnings and [other advanced options] for cooling.
What’s at Risk and Why?
An October 11, 2017, study done by The Marshall Project is a real eyeopener. Entitled “‘Cooking Them to Death’: The Lethal Toll of Hot Prisons,” this report brings the issues home in startling ways. One such fact uncovered by the project is that “prisoners often live without air-conditioning in areas where temperatures exceed 100 degrees for days at a time and the heat index, which records how hot it feels with humidity, has hit 150 degrees.”
The report goes on to say, “‘When the humidity is really high, the sweat can’t evaporate,’ said Susi Vassallo, M.D., a New York University professor in emergency medicine who studies thermoregulation. ‘It rolls off your body, without cooling it.’ Heat stroke victims may become delirious and start seizing and convulsing. ‘The cells of the body start to cook and fall apart.’”
The report cites a clear acknowledgment and best-case action. “In 2012, a federal judge ordered the Louisiana State Penitentiary to lower temperatures on death row to 88 degrees; at times, the heat index had reached 109.”
The Lethal Toll of Hot Prisons
CNN reports that “Heat stroke occurs when your core body temperature rises above 104°F (40°C) while you also experience profound changes in brain function—‘alterations in consciousness or mental status,’ said Dr. Corey Slovis, a professor and chair of Emergency Medicine at Vanderbilt University Medical Centers.”
According to the Mayo Clinic, heatstroke signs and symptoms include:
- High body temperature. A core body temperature of 104 F (40 C) or higher, obtained with a rectal thermometer, is the main sign of heatstroke.
- Altered mental state or behavior. Confusion, agitation, slurred speech, irritability, delirium, seizures and coma can all result from heatstroke.
- Alteration in sweating. In heatstroke brought on by hot weather, your skin will feel hot and dry to the touch. However, in heatstroke brought on by strenuous exercise, your skin may feel dry or slightly moist.
- Nausea and vomiting. You may feel sick to your stomach or vomit.
- Flushed skin. Your skin may turn red as your body temperature increases.
- Rapid breathing. Your breathing may become rapid and shallow.
- Racing heart rate. Your pulse may significantly increase because heat stress places a tremendous burden on your heart to help cool your body.
- Headache. Your head may throb.
This is a quintessential prison reform issue. Albeit, it’s a societal issue that incorporates incarcerated people. If state, county, and federal prison systems cannot house their charges in humane ways without exposing them to pain, injury, or death, the imperative is to take actions such as those proposed by the Sabin Center. Consciously going into a semiexistential state by lying on my bunk and staring at a focal point on the wall or ceiling for long periods of time is a coping mechanism for dealing with cruel and unusual punishment enacted by the government.
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