Last year, the Northwest baked through an unprecedented heat wave. At the time, The Office of the Corrections Ombuds, an independent agency in Washington within the governor’s office, conducted a site visit at the Monroe Correctional Complex. The office found that air vents blowing air into common areas measured a surface temperature of 95 degrees. The office listed recommendations the Department of Corrections should implement.
High Country News recently published a report on how prisons in the state responded to the heat wave. It details grievances from people in prison that illustrate extreme conditions and a lack of emergency preparation. Sarah Sax, a freelance journalist and former climate Justice fellow at High Country News, reported the story. She joins us with details.
Note: The following transcript was computer generated and edited by a volunteer.
Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. It’s been almost a year since the heat dome descended on the northwest, smashing temperature records over a couple deadly days. Prisons were hit especially hard. High Country News obtained almost 100 grievances about the heat written by people incarcerated at 10 of Washington’s state prisons. Their reporting shows that this could happen again. Sarah Sax is a freelance journalist and former climate justice fellow at High Country News and joins us with more. Welcome to Think Out Loud.
Sarah Sax: Thanks for having me on.
Miller: What exactly prompted your investigation?
Sax: I was a climate justice fellow at High Country News last year. I’d just started right after this heat wave hit. The Ombuds office in Washington had put out this report kind of like at the peak of the heatwave, looking at the Monroe Correctional Complex, which is one of the largest prisons in Washington. They had gone in and reported that there was a lot of suffering going on. The temperatures were extremely hot. There was no air conditioning. People were complaining about a lot of heat exhaustion issues. There was hot air being pumped into some of the cells. So it was a pretty damning report that they wrote, and it got a fair amount of coverage locally in Seattle. My editor and I were talking and she was like, ‘I wonder if this is happening elsewhere.’ So we did a public records request. Technically it’s supposed to take a month, but it ended up taking several. We finally got grievances back, and the picture that it painted for us was that this wasn’t just something that was confined to MCC, to the Monroe Correctional Complex. It was actually an issue that was happening basically all throughout Washington state. And that prisons were very unprepared for the heat wave.
Miller: Let’s start then with this question of being unprepared, because the heatwave was unprecedented in its severity, but it didn’t exactly come out of nowhere, right? I mean, there were warnings in the days ahead.
Sax: Yeah, there were a lot of warnings in the days ahead. Some people would also argue there was a big heat wave in 2017. There’s been a series of studies that have said these heat waves are actually going to be a lot more common, a lot more severe, in the Pacific Northwest. And for this heat wave, 10 days to two weeks ahead of time, people were really starting to sound the alarm and starting to say, ‘This is going to be really bad. This is gonna be really intense. If you have people that are elderly, if you have people that have medical conditions, you need to make sure that they’re taken care of.’ So yeah, there was a lot of information that this was going to happen. The prison, the department of corrections themselves, sent out emails before the heat wave saying, ‘Hey, this is happening. This will be bad.’
Miller: Sent those emails to all the different prisons in the system?
Sax: Yeah. As far as we could obtain from our records request, it was an email that was sent out to – it was a single email – sent out to all prison staff basically looking at what the weather forecasts were and saying there was certain things that the weather forecasts were saying: nights are going to be really hot, there’s gonna be no relief at night, that’s super dangerous for heatstroke… So just kind of highlighting a couple of those things. It was a pretty small email but goes to show that people were aware that this was happening.
Miller: Were you able to find evidence of preparations for the heat wave based on that official warning from Washington Department of Corrections and all the others that public health agencies around the Northwest were giving in the days leading up to the heat dome? Did prison officials actually do anything?
Sax: We found one prison – the Monroe Correctional Complex actually. They had what was called an Incident Action Plan. This is an emergency action plan that they put in place, not just for heat, for a lot of different things that might happen. So they had put one in place because of the heat wave, starting on June 26. That was the only emergency pre-mediated sign that we could find, again through this public records request, that showed that one of the prisons had made these preparations. Then after the heat wave was in full effect, another prison implemented ad hoc rules.
Miller: As I noted, you were able to get – through public records requests, after months – something like 95 grievances filed by people incarcerated in 10 different prisons in the state, specifically about the heat. These are complaints that they submitted to corrections officials. Can you give us a sense for the kinds of things they were raising the alarm about?
Sax: Definitely. I think that was something that, as I poured over a lot of these grievances, which, for people that don’t know or to kind of visualize it, it’s basically a one page, [8-1/4 x 11-3/4 in] A4 sheet, that has a lot of the details on it. Each grievance is given a number. It says what cell, what unit, what prison the people are at. And then it has maybe like a third of the page is a place where people can write freehand what their grievance is. I sorted them by prison and looked at it, and basically it told a little bit of a story about what was happening at each place.
Places like Monroe Correctional Complex, a lot of people were complaining about the fact that guards had access to AC and incarcerated people didn’t, that they were supposed to be given access to ice and cold water, and that those things were being rationed. Places like the WCCW [Washington Corrections Center for Women], which is a women’s prison in Gig Harbor, most of the complaints there were about these ad hoc changes that were happening as to whether they could open or close the door. At some point they closed the door and it just kind of turned into a sauna. And then of course everyone was just– a lot of the people were just complaining about the excessively high heat. Lots of people [were] talking about how it was 85, 90, 95, 101, 110… The highest one we got was 114 degrees in people’s cells. So a lot of it was just hot air, not being able to move, not having access to fans, not being able to cool your body down. These are people that have very little control over their environment. So there was a lot of just despair, of like: it’s really hot, and I can’t do anything, and I need help.
Miller: One line that stood out – you included in your article some photographs of these actual complaint forms. One person wrote, ‘How about a policy when it is 103°F with no ventilation and the only way to breathe is to lay on the ground.’ How did prison officials, broadly, respond to this huge number of really emergent grievances? It’s not, ‘Hey, at some point, I’d like you to do this.’ It’s, ‘This is a catastrophe right now. Do something.’ How did prison officials respond?
Sax: Again that differed a little bit from prison to prison. In some cases, I think you saw… Like the women’s prison, after they got almost 40 grievances in the span of about 24 hours, they actually reversed their policy of closing the doors and said, ‘okay, actually we’ll open them.’ So, in some cases, you had an actual response to that. In other cases… Part of this investigation, we obviously got the grievances, we looked into them, and then we started contacting incarcerated people and talking to them more in depth about their experience on the ground. In many cases, for example the man that submitted that line that you just read, he was basically saying nothing happened. He was kind of surprised that I contacted him. He was like, ‘I just thought this grievance had gone into the ether. I haven’t really gotten a response. Nothing has changed. I’m surprised you’re contacting me about it.’ But, we were able to talk about the ways that they responded. In this case, they didn’t really respond. So a lot of the incarcerated people had to douse themselves in cold water, if they could have it, or douse themselves in wet blankets. In this case, he slept on the floor for several days, on the concrete floor with a towel on top of him soaked in water and said, ‘I basically didn’t sleep for a week.’
Miller: One of the prisons you wrote about, the Washington State Penitentiary, you note that it’s one of the country’s oldest prisons. How significant is that fact in terms of infrastructure? And I guess more broadly, to what extent does aging infrastructure play into this conversation about a building’s climate resiliency?
Sax: I think that’s a really excellent question and one that I would really love to see the Department of Corrections take up or state climate plans or something. Because, with a lot of the experts I talked to who are experts on prison and prison infrastructure, they all basically said most of these prisons, especially in the north where you’re not planning … When these were all built 100 years ago, nobody in their wildest dreams could have imagined a heat wave in Seattle that would break 100°. It was unthinkable. Most of these are just big concrete metal buildings that if anything maybe are built for the cold but are definitely not built for the heat.
Miller: And even are built to maximize sunlight it seems. Normally you’d think that would be such a benefit. But in your article, we can see how this thing that could be seen as literally a window to the world – one of the few ways you might sort of get a sense for the outside – how this was a key problem for so many people who are incarcerated, just trying desperately to block the sunlight from coming in through windows and not even being allowed to.
Sax: Yeah. I think that, for me, one of the more surprising elements that I came to understand is that obviously there’s things you can do on this much larger scale in terms of building construction or whatnot. But even small things that you and I might think about doing if it gets really hot outside – you close the windows and turn the AC. Nobody has curtains, for example. So it gets super hot, and then you have the sun shining through. You can’t potentially leave yourself, so you’re literally trapped in this sauna with a window without any curtains. So that was like a big … there’s these small things that might seem to the ordinary reader a bit banal. But things like curtains are one of the best ways you can just stop the heat from coming in, and those things are not widely accessible or accessible at all.
Miller: You write that, because of age and various medical conditions broadly, prison populations are especially vulnerable to heat. Did any incarcerated people receive medical attention or were any hospitalized specifically because of this heat event?
Sax: We asked the DOC about that, and they said that there were nine people that received medical attention during the heat wave. Some of the people we spoke to, some of the incarcerated people we spoke to, had themselves either fallen unconscious or had been sent to trauma rooms that were doubling as cooling centers or had otherwise had medical issues.
Miller: The heat dome didn’t happen at the same time as a major forest fire, blessedly, near any of these prisons. But something like that could happen in the future. How much did you think about what concurrent disasters would mean for places like prisons?
Sax: That was something that came up a lot when we were talking to the folks inside because so many of them were also at the same time struggling with COVID. One of the things that we didn’t have enough space to fully get into, but is definitely hanging over this whole story, is the fact that there was a massive pandemic happening at the same time. A lot of the rules and the ability to move people around was obviously both limited and made worse by this outbreak, which has been horrific in prisons around the country. I thought about that a lot because so many of the experts I talked to when we were talking about the future, almost every single climate scientist I talked to said: ‘Heat is bad, but imagine heat and a pandemic and a wildfire. What if you can’t open your windows because the air quality is so bad, and what if you don’t have AC and ventilation? And then you have a prison population that has a highly infectious pandemic going on, a highly infectious disease. What would you do?’ I think that, for me, the big takeaway from doing the story is being prepared, for this saves lives. Being prepared makes it so much … Being prepared means that you have much less suffering in that population, and it’s just the humane thing to do.
Miller: Has the Washington State Department of Corrections implemented new protocols as a result of this heat wave?
Sax: No large ones that we were aware of. There were a couple of small cases: someone had grieved not being able to wear shorts and t-shirts for the entirety of the summer. There’s very strict rules about [it]. One of the things that the prison, or a couple of the prisons, did end up implementing is saying: ‘Hey, you can wear flip-flops or like shower shoes and you don’t have to wear closed-toe shoes, and you can wear shorts and t-shirts and you don’t have to wear long-sleeve pants and shirts.’ In one case we saw that someone had grieved that, and they had said, ‘okay, we’ll just let you wear shorts and t-shirts for the whole summer.’ But as far as I know, no big changes have been made or were made since.
Miller: Sarah Sax, thanks very much.
Sax: Thank you for having me.
Miller: Sarah Sax is a freelance journalist, former climate justice fellow at High Country News.
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