‘You’re Cooking in There’: Every Summer, Those Behind Bars Face Triple-Digit Temperatures

"I'd cry because I felt like I was suffocating."

Even in cities and states where temperatures don't reach the triple digits, the season can still be painful. Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

“On any given day, as the cell doors lock for the last time, the temperature is about 93 degrees. Some cells have reported as high as 100 degrees.” This is what Jane Dorotik, who has been incarcerated at the California Institution for Women (CIW) since 2001, wrote to Rewire in July. Dorotik, like many of the women around her, has a digital thermometer in her cell. Each summer, she watches the numbers climb.

The CIW prison is located in San Bernardino County, just outside the Los Angeles area. During the hottest months, the temperature regularly rises above 100 degrees. Inside the brick and cinderblock prison built in the 1950s, it often stays that way even after the sun goes down.

“Individual fans are churning on high in most of the cells (for those fortunate enough to be able to afford a fan), but after a while it is just sticky hot air blowing around, providing no cooling,” Dorotik wrote to Rewire. Unlike many other prisons, CIW has windows that can be opened from the inside, allowing the cell to cool overnight. By about 5 a.m., the cell is in the mid-80s, allowing women to sleep more comfortably for a few short hours. But temperatures rise with the sun and, each morning, the cycle begins all over again.

It’s not just in Southern California where summers are sweltering. In July, a jail in St. Louis, Missouri, nicknamed the “workhouse” garnered headlines and protests when heat indices in the area soared up to 110 degrees. The protests pushed the jail to install temporary air conditioning units (costing $40,000 to rent per month) and search for a more permanent solution. Activists also began a coordinated bailout campaign for those held at the workhouse. In Texas, where 79 of its 108 prison units lack air conditioning and 22 people have died of heat stroke since 1998, people at the Pack Unit in Navasota sued, claiming that the extreme heat constituted cruel and unusual punishment and that prison housing units should not exceed 88 degrees. A federal judge agreed, ordering in July that air conditioning be provided to those with medical issues. More than 1,000 prisoners with medical issues were moved to prisons with air conditioning though those without medical issues will remain in units without it. Once the heat subsides, those moved will be transferred back to the un-air-conditioned units.

However, in most other prisons where people spend years—if not decades—behind bars, there’s little consideration given to the summer temperatures. For those who are aging or have health conditions, the nonstop heat and humidity can be particularly dangerous.

Dorotik described the last summer that Jeanette, a 73-year-old she knew with crippling arthritis, spent at CIW. “Jeanette is very much aware that she is more vulnerable to the heat, because of her age and the medication she takes,” Dorotik noted. To cope, she said, Jeanette took cold showers three times a day, though a fight or other disturbance anywhere inside the prison can cause a lockdown, meaning that every woman is locked inside her cell with no access to the showers. When not in the shower, “she drapes a wet towel around her neck and over her body, she mists herself with cool water as she lies on her bunk,” described Dorotik, who herself is now 70 years old. “I know she did these things religiously because I lived right across from her and reminded her daily.”

Despite these measures, Dorotik reported that Jeanette still collapsed several times; each time a prison emergency vehicle was summoned to bring the woman to the prison clinic for cooling measures. Sometimes Jeanette was even taken to an outside hospital after being diagnosed with heat exhaustion. When that happened, two guards were assigned to accompany her and prevent any escape attempts.

After three decades in prison, Jeanette was granted parole and released. However, Dorotik says that CIW still houses 263 women who are ages 55 or older; 139 of these women are older than 60. The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) records show that, as of May 2017, 586 women at CIW are older than age 45; CDCR officials were unable to clarify how many of those women were over ages 55 or 60.

California has 34 prisons; some are located in regions, such as the Mojave Desert, where temperatures can rise to 120 degrees. “You can adapt air conditioning in some of these buildings, but not in others,” stated Bill Sessa of CDCR’s press office. Every prison has air conditioning in some parts, though the average housing unit would rely on a swamp cooler instead. But, he added, “the point is not whether the units have air conditioning but whether you’re taking precautions to protect them from the heat.” He also noted that California prison policies have been shaped by court oversight, including a court order mandating that the prison improve medical care and another that stipulated that, in order to improve health care, CDCR must reduce prison overcrowding.

“Every prison has a heat management plan,” Sessa told Rewire, noting that the department’s plans and policies are uniform, regardless of the prison’s location. The plan is triggered any time the temperatures reaches 95 degrees. First, he explained, the prison logs the temperature. Then, he said, “we may bring in extra fans, provide extra water and extra showers,” he said. People taking mental health medications, particularly those making them more susceptible to the heat, may be moved to air-conditioned portions of the prison. Aging people, he added, are dealt with on a case-by-case basis while pregnant women are moved to the medical ward, which is air conditioned.

Though there may be a plan, Dorotik noted that it hasn’t done much for CIW’s older women (or “golden girls,” as she calls them). “Here at CIW we have no cooling system whatsoever and these old brick buildings become solar cookers,” she wrote. In other words, there are no swamp coolers, let alone air conditioning.  This means that the housing units are often hotter than the outside temperatures, offering no relief on the worst summer days (and nights).

“Once the inside temperature reaches 95 degrees, then we are on stage three heat alert,” she explained. “This means extra ice may be provided and nursing staff may come cell to cell asking if you are OK. I have yet to see any inmate being moved to a cooler or air conditioned space.” CIW does have air-conditioned medical wards, but, Dorotik notes, in her 16 years in prison, “I have not seen anyone moved there because it is too hot in the housing unit.”

She and other golden girls have repeatedly asked for a “cooling station,” similar to the ones offered to people outside of prison. Several years ago, she said, the chapel served as a cooling station, “but not now, there are just too many elderly to provide such a space.” She admits that prison administrators do try and, on the hottest days, have bought additional ice when the prison’s machines are unable to produce enough to keep ice water available in every housing unit.

Dorotik notes that the expenses of out-of-prison heat hospitalizations, complete with an ambulance and two guards round the clock “would easily pay for an in-prison cooling station and allow vulnerable inmates to escape the relentless heat for a few hours. Such a cooling station would likely prevent the hospital trips like Jeanette experienced … but do we have a cooling station set up for these women? No, we don’t.”

Even in cities and states where temperatures don’t reach the triple digits, the season can still be painful. Danbury, Connecticut, is not known for extreme summers; temperatures there normally hover in the 70s and 80s. Neither the Federal Correctional Institution (FCI) nor the federal prison camp there have air conditioning, confirmed the Bureau of Prisons. Instead, stated an email from an executive assistant at FCI—who did not provide their name—they are cooled with large floor fans, wall mounted fans, personal fans, and windows.

But Patricia Williams, who entered FCI Danbury in 2004 for a probation violation, told Rewire about how a summer locked in a windowless basement dormitory of the federal corrections center was still hell. It didn’t matter that she was in her 60s or that she had asthma that could be triggered by the heat, a fact that had been well documented during her previous ten years in the federal prison system. Nonetheless, she told Rewire that she was assigned a bed in what she had been told was once the prison’s laundry room and had become a dormitory (or “bus stop”) for new arrivals.

“We were about 12 in double bunks,” she described. “It had no ceiling or wall or any other fan.” The lack of windows and ventilation meant that the room often rose to 90 degrees, she said, even after sunset. “At night, they would allow us to move a standing fan in there and, of course, there would be fights about which direction the fan would face.” One night, a fight caused the fan to go flying; it fell on Williams’ bed and her ankle, cutting into it. During the day, the fan would be returned to the rec room.

To keep cool, Williams slept naked in a wet sheet, a violation of the prison’s rules stipulating that women must be clothed at all times, even when sleeping.  Still, the heat triggered her asthma twice. Each time, the women around her noticed the whistling sound accompanying each labored breath; they brought her to the guard, who would wheel her to the prison’s infirmary where she could access an inhaler and sit in front of a fan until she was able to breathe normally again. Then she’d be returned to the bus stop. Williams, out of prison for the past 13 years and now a member of the National Council of Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls, says she has not had an asthma attack since leaving the windowless prison dorm.

In an email to Rewire, the executive assistant wrote that the prisons have no basement housing areas and that no housing areas were converted from other purposes, such as a laundry room. That may be the case today, but at least three other women who were incarcerated at FCI Danbury during the early 2000s told Rewire about dorms that were re-purposed from common areas.

Justine Moore, known as Taz to her friends, was in Danbury from 1999 to 2013. During that time, she remembers that the prison’s laundry rooms were converted into bus stops. “Some had windows, some did not,” she told Rewire. “None of those rooms had ceiling fans.”

Laundry rooms weren’t the only units converted to short-term housing. For nearly a year, Taz says she was housed in a dorm that had previously been a hair care room. Though not in the basement, the windowless room was still stifling for the eight to ten women inside.

In Gig Harbor, Washington, temperatures also remain in the 70s and 80s. But summer remained excruciating for Kandyce, who was in her third trimester of pregnancy at the Washington Corrections Center for Women in 2014. “You’re in a concrete building—and the sun is on a concrete building,” she said during an interview the following year, “so you’re cooking in there.” The unrelenting heat gave her anxiety attacks. Because of her pregnancy, Kandyce was able to obtain approval to get ice, but the women were locked down between 8:45 p.m. and 7 a.m. the next day. During those times, she was unable to walk to the ice machine; instead, she spent those 10 hours sitting by the door, trying to breathe. “I’d cry because I felt like I was suffocating,” she stated. The Washington State Department of Corrections did not respond to a request for clarification of its heat precautions.

At California’s other women’s prison, the Central California Women’s Facility (CCWF) in Chowchilla, temperatures regularly reach triple digits during the summer months; for the remainder of August, they’re expected to drop to 93 degrees. Though CCWF has swamp coolers, women inside have stated that they do little to nothing. Furthermore, 29-year-old Ivett Ayestas wrote in a letter to advocacy group the California Coalition for Women Prisoners: “These swamp coolers consistently break down and need constant repair.” Plus, continued Ayestas, who has been imprisoned since 2008, “CCWF has no parts to keep up with the repair of the broken swamp coolers. They cannot buy parts because there is no money to buy parts because it is the end of the fiscal year.”

Similar to CIW, the heat remains trapped inside the building and so temperatures inside rarely dip below 90 degrees, even at night. Fans can be bought at the prison’s commissary (or prison store) for $28, a price that many who do not have family members or friends who can send them money cannot afford.

Ayestas noted that the prison’s administrators have done what they can to fix the problem, placing work order after work order and making phone call after phone call to have the swamp coolers fixed. Despite their efforts, she stated that little has changed. “Triple digit temperatures are always expected every summer,” she noted. But, she added, “I do not know if CDCR bothered to prepare for next summer’s heat by taking into consideration the rate of how often these swamp coolers break down by actually buying parts that are needed for next summer so we won’t be in the same boat as we are this summer.” Women are also allowed ice water, but, Ayestas noted, the two ice machines in her housing unit are frequently broken.

However, prisons that have more recently been constructed don’t face the same problems. Surprisingly, at Mabel Bassett Correctional Center, Oklahoma’s largest women’s prison that remains overcrowded, nearly every housing unit has air conditioning. However, the building was opened in 1998. “Only a few don’t have air conditioning and they just this week fixed most of the broken ones,” reported 64-year-old Mary Fish, who has been incarcerated there since 2002. Sometimes, ironically, the cold can be extreme. Fish spent a few days in solitary confinement in July. There, she reported that “the air was so cold, me and Breezy [her cellmate] had to block [the vent] with rags.”

In the housing units, however, the units occasionally break down. When that happens, “the cells are so hot that we had to blow three fans to be able to stand being locked in.” Women can also buy a fan for $25 from the prison’s commissary, though the overcrowding means that fans and other supplies run out quickly, leaving some to swelter without relief.

Meanwhile, those behind bars at prisons in hotter climates, like Chowchilla, must await the relatively cooler seasons. “This particular unit houses one silver fox,” stated Ayestas, her nickname for women over 55 years old. “She is in her eighties, I believe. She is not faring well in this heat and I am concerned about her as well as the other silver foxes.”

At CIW, meanwhile, Dorotik reflected, “I recognize it is next to impossible, practically and financially, to attempt to retrofit this old building with a cooling system. I recognize it is not really feasible to find a cooling center that can hold up to 447 women.”

Dorotik continued, “I readily acknowledge the real answer lies in not continuing to incarcerate so many elderly and vulnerable women—so when will state laws, policies and practices catch up with the practical and safe solution of releasing elderly from prison?”