By Paul Kiefer
On Wednesday morning, Washington Department of Corrections (DOC) staff covered part of a window at the entrance of the Twin Rivers Unit (TRU) at the Monroe Correctional Complex in Snohomish County in an attempt to lower the heat inside on a day when outside temperatures peaked at 82 degrees.
But people incarcerated in the TRU say they spent the worst of the past week’s heat wave—including a high of 111 degrees in Monroe on Monday—in sweltering cells with no air conditioning and few chances to cool down, while prison staff had access to air-conditioned offices when temperatures rose into the triple digits.
The newly covered window, they said, was too little, too late. But few of those living in the unit are confident that prison administrators are planning ahead for another heat wave. “These are only going to get more common,” said David, a prisoner in the TRU who spoke with PubliCola on Wednesday. “And it’s pretty clear that [the DOC] won’t be prepared for the next one.” (PubliCola is using David’s first name only to reduce the risk of retaliation).
According to DOC Communications Director Jacque Coe, only a handful of units in the state’s nine prisons west of the Cascades have air conditioning systems. All units in the three state prisons east of the Cascades are air-conditioned.
The temperature control systems in other units in western Washington vary from prison to prison, and even from unit to unit. At the Monroe complex, only the two units reserved for inmates with severe mental illnesses have air conditioning.
But the TRU—a unit that houses over 800 people, including some who are elderly or have chronic illnesses—is only outfitted with vents that pump air from the unit’s roof into common spaces and cells, as well as a pair of ceiling fans on both floors of the unit.
“When it got well into the triple digits,” David said, “all that system did was pump in hot air.” David, who suffers from a heart condition, added that he spent the weekend struggling to breathe and battling dizzy spells.
Another person incarcerated in the unit told PubliCola that temperatures in the TRU’s common areas rose above 100 degrees, in part because prison staff didn’t cover the skylights in the prison’s community room. In the cells on the second floor, residents claimed that temperatures reached over 110 degrees.
With indoor temperatures climbing, people living in the TRU struggled to find relief. DOC administrators loosened a handful of rules: Inmates were allowed to partially cover their cell windows and wear wet towels, and guards allowed people to spend up to an hour in two air-conditioned cafeterias before sending them back to their cells. (A kitchen was also available as a cooling station). On the prison yard, staff set up ‘misting stations’—small tents outfitted with sprinklers—where people could briefly find shade during their recreation time in the early afternoon.
But David and two other men incarcerated at the TRU said prison administrators could have done far more to keep prisoners healthy during the heat wave. One prisoner told his wife in an email that prison staff didn’t lower the temperature of the unit’s “scalding hot” showers to serve as a cooling station; instead, many of the men went without showers over the weekend. Others who spoke to PubliCola said guards restricted their access to the unit’s ice machine.
The most common frustration that people in the TRU described to PubliCola, however, was that prison staff had consistent access to air conditioning throughout the heat wave. “The education department, the visitation room, the chapel, the administrative offices—those are all air-conditioned,” said David. “Everywhere that staff work is air-conditioned, and everywhere inmates live isn’t. Why didn’t they open up more spaces as cooling centers?”
Without adequate support from administrators, some prisoners stepped in to help more vulnerable people on the unit. A handful of men who had personal fans, for example, broke prison rules by loaning them to the unit’s older residents.
But according to David, the hurried efforts to respond to the heat wave couldn’t keep everyone safe. Earlier in the week, he added, at least two people from his wing—which holds 77 people—were removed from the unit to receive medical care because of heat-related stress.
According to Coe, nine people in DOC custody received medical treatment for heat-related health concerns, and one person was hospitalized.
In the meantime, incarcerated people and their families worry that the DOC hasn’t signaled a willingness to prepare for the next heat wave. Given the likelihood that extreme heat will become more common in the Pacific Northwest in the near future, the crisis that struck the TRU may not be the last time the DOC needs to respond to dangerous temperatures inside its prisons.
Suzanne Cook, whose husband is incarcerated at the TRU, said that she’s been pressing prison administrators to update the facility’s temperature control system to little effect. “I don’t think there’s a plan to fix this,” she said. “There isn’t an incentive for [the DOC] to spend the money to prepare for the region getting hotter, and each prison is so different that it would require a lot of commitment to get it right next time.”
The DOC hasn’t responded to a question from PubliCola about preparations for future heat waves; we’ll update this story if they respond.
PubliCola has also reached out to people incarcerated at other facilities in Western Washington about their experience during the heat wave.