Cyrus DunhamNov. 22, 2020
The only way to ascertain the temperature at the California Institution for Women, or CIW, on a given day is to check the hourly forecast at the nearest weather reporting stations. During the September 5 and 6 heat wave in Southern California, the closest recorded temperature to CIW hit 115 degrees. But those stations only measure outside temperatures, not the real heat index of a roughly 8-by-12 cement-walled cell, with no ventilation or air circulation.
The second-most populous women-designated state prison in California, CIW sits on arid former farmland, where San Bernardino and Riverside counties meet, at the western edge of the expanse of suburbs commonly known as the Inland Empire. Abutted by a golf course, fields of row crops, and a housing development called “The Preserve,” CIW is situated on the outskirts of two cities, Chino and Corona, that are hesitant to claim it. CIW was once called the California Institution for Women at Corona, but elected officials and residents balked at being associated with the facility, and the name was officially changed in 1962. Together with the California Institution for Men, or CIM, the male-designated facility that CIW neighbors, the two prisons cover over 1,800 acres and have a combined incarcerated population of over 3,500.
The expansion of the prison industrial complex has taken place against a backdrop of steadily increasing global temperatures. When CIW was first opened in 1952, California averaged fewer than two heat waves per year. The original facility was built to house just over 1,000 incarcerated people, designed more along the lines of a community college campus than a high-security prison. By 2013, the facility was operating at over 150 percent capacity. Now Southern California routinely sustains as many as 10 heat waves per year, far longer and hotter than the average heat wave of the 1950s.
In dozens of pages of correspondence and in phone calls with The Intercept, 10 people currently incarcerated at CIW described the day-to-day experience of incarceration through a heat wave as “unbearable,” “torture,” “a living hell,” and “like being cooked alive.” They consistently reported lack of access to working fans, air-conditioned spaces, or more than two small cups of ice per day; reportedly, people in units without ice machines often received less ice, and those held in solitary confinement units often received no ice at all.
Long-standing heating issues were exacerbated by changes made to curb the spread of the coronavirus. CIW experienced a major outbreak in late spring and summer, which advocates believe to be the result of staff movement between CIW and CIM, which was the initial source of Covid-19 cases throughout the California prison system. The state correctional department’s official Covid-19 tracker reports 342 total infections at CIW thus far, and one death. Many reported that throughout the outbreak they were unable to open their doors or leave their housing units. One person who had been previously held in the prison’s Covid-19 quarantine unit reported that quarantined people were consistently denied access to showers or were banned from opening their windows.
When asked about these conditions, prison administrators cite the implementation of heat-management policies. But those policies, even if followed, are an ineffective shield against the heat, according to sources currently incarcerated inside CIW, some of whom I have preexisting relationships with through organizing and advocacy work, and all of whom asked to be referred to by a pseudonym due to fear of retaliation from prison staff.
The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, or CDCR, which oversees and manages CIW, told me in an unattributed statement that the agency is “moving forward with plans to improve energy facilities at its facilities, including evaporative cooling in housing units,” but offered no concrete timeline.
CDCR also stated that once “the temperature reaches 90 degrees outside or inside,” “ice water is provided in housing units,” “housing units with air conditioning are maintained at cool levels,” and “multiple fans are placed throughout the housing units.” CDCR and California Correctional Health Care Services, the agency that oversees health care inside CDCR facilities, did not respond to my inquiries about the number of people hospitalized annually for heat-related illnesses.
These “specific cooling measures,” as CDCR refers to them, are deceptively simple, and tellingly vague. How much ice is provided in housing units, and to whom? How many of the housing units have air conditioning to begin with? Where in the housing units are the fans placed?
Adela, a 54-year-old woman serving a life sentence at CIW, who suffers from high-blood pressure, diabetes, and kidney problems — all of which increase the risk of heat-related illness — told me that throughout the August and September heat waves she was without a fan, after the small hand-held fan her family purchased for her at the beginning of the summer broke from constant use. She begged staff for a replacement, to no avail. And while staff provided her with a cup of ice in the morning, she reported that the ice melted within an hour, even when the temperature was only in the high 90s, which is the late summer norm in inland Southern California.
“The only way for me to survive,” she wrote to me the week after September’s heat wave, “is to wash my clothes in the sink and wear them wet, day and night.”
Extreme heat is the leading cause of climate-related deaths in the Unites States. There are no solid, national statistics on heat-related deaths in carceral institutions, but 13 Southern and Midwestern states lack universal air conditioning in jails and prisons, according to a 2019 brief from the Prison Policy Initiative. And even in the states that do report the use of air conditioning in jails and prisons, there is no way to be certain that all facilities — managed by different municipalities, counties, and private contractors — uniformly enforce and maintain working cooling systems. The lack of access to air conditioning is made all the more lethal by the architectural and design standards of modern carceral institutions, the majority of which are constructed using concrete and concrete-like materials, which increase interior temperatures. Modern housing units, especially in maximum security facilities, generally have small, slit-like windows that do not open; many solitary confinement or administrative segregation units have no windows at all.
At the same time, incarcerated people are more likely to suffer from high blood pressure, heart disease, and diabetes, all of which increase the body’s susceptibility to heat. Incarcerated populations are also prescribed psychotropic medications at much higher rates than the rest of the population, which are known to impact the body’s ability to self-regulate its internal temperature when hot. In Los Angeles County alone, over 30 percent of the jail population receives psychotropic medications, which can be forcibly administered without their consent. All of this is compounded by frequent medical neglect and lack of access to adequate medical care in many of these prisons.
In a notorious 1991 incident in California, three men were found dead in their cells in Vacaville state prison’s psychiatric ward, 35 miles southwest of Sacramento. The presumed cause was hyperthermia, and the coroner reported that all three men’s body temperatures were over 108 degrees. Throughout the aughts, California faced lawsuits regarding conditions inside its prisons, including extreme heat, ultimately leading to the creation of what are commonly referred to as heat plan policies.
In the last decade, there have been numerous instances of abuse and neglect connected to extreme heat in jails, prisons, and detention centers, including high-profile incidents in St. Louis, Missouri, and Maricopa County, Arizona. In 2014, seven incarcerated people filed a class-action lawsuit against the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, citing a pattern of severe heat-related neglect, resulting in at least 23 heat-related deaths inside TDCJ facilities over two decades. In the case’s 2017 settlement, U.S. District Judge Keith Ellison described the TDCJ’s management of heat as “cruel and unusual punishment,” and demanded in his injunction that the department keep prison temperatures below 88 degrees, setting a new federal precedent.
CDCR’s company line is to describe heat plan policies as a matter of fact. But reports from inside CIW — where the incarcerated population is painfully aware that the world around them is rapidly warming — indicate that they are mere guidelines that exist only in writing.
“In the last five years of my sentence, it just kept getting hotter,” said Beatrice, who was released last year after serving nearly four decades at CIW. “In the summertime, it was so hot in my cell I stopped being able to sleep. We could feel the difference in the climate. We knew what was happening.”
The onset of Covid-19 restricted the majority of the population at CIW to their housing units and cells, exacerbating already existing extreme heat conditions.
“Normally we are allowed outside until 8:30pm,” wrote Deborah, 55. “This allowed for us to sit in the shade or find cooler air. But Covid-19 measures keep us in our rooms to avoid the spread of the virus. It’s also hard to get into the showers, due to one-at-time access to avoid spread of the virus.”
Roxane, who is 73 years old and suffers from kidney disease and high blood pressure, spent four weeks inside the quarantine unit in May, after a roommate tested positive for Covid-19. Roxane reported that while quarantined, she went days without being able to shower and was not allowed to open her windows or door.
CDCR’s guidelines require that cells be opened and that all incarcerated people be provided with ice and increased shower access when temperatures inside or outside reach above 90 degrees. While these cooling measures are implemented sporadically, the incarcerated population also has no way of proving that temperatures have reached that threshold — and therefore no way of holding prison administrators to account.
Three sources, two currently incarcerated at CIW and one released this summer, told me that their housing units were without thermometers in the hallways or cells, and that if there were thermometers, they were kept in the air-conditioned offices where staff spend the majority of the day. When asked about the absence of thermometers, CDCR’s media representative pinned the missing thermometers on the incarcerated population, explaining, “Officers have used portable thermometers to gauge the temperature in each room because wall thermometers have been stolen or vandalized and such incidents threaten safety and security of all those who live and work in the institution.”
“Why would incarcerated people vandalize thermometers?” countered Jane Dorotik, 73, a longtime activist for better conditions inside CIW. “That’s the only means we have to prove the heat and demand better conditions. It goes completely against our own best interest.”
Dorotik began to notice that thermometers were gone in 2019 after she told prison officials that if they did not adjust their heat management policies, they would no doubt face a lawsuit like the one in Texas. (She was convicted in 2001 of the murder of her husband and was sentenced to 25 years to life. She has always maintained her innocence and, following advocacy from Loyola Law School’s Project for the Innocent, her conviction was overturned by the San Diego Superior Court in an uncontested action based on false forensics. The San Diego DA is now considering a retrial.)
CDCR’s heat plan also requires that nursing staff routinely check all housing units for symptoms of heat exposure. But that was not Dorotik’s experience: “What the nurse actually does is cruise in and out of the housing unit in approximately thirty seconds, give a quick hello to the custody staff, check the temperature log which the housing staff keeps in the air-conditioned cop shop, and continue onto the next unit.”
In response to a question about the nursing checks, CDCR stated, “CIW’s Appeals Office has not received any complaints on this issue. Also, concerns have not been raised at either CIW’s Inmate Advisory Council or Inmate Family Council meetings.”
Yet CIW’s grievance system is notoriously ineffective, according to those who have tried to lodge complaints. Numerous people I spoke to reported having submit grievances, commonly known as form 602s, regarding broken fans or inadequate access to ice. They said none of their grievances were directly responded to or addressed. Jesse, who identifies as male and is in his late 40s, said he filed a grievance about his broken fan in mid-September. Despite being prescribed medications that increase the risk of heat-related illness or death — meaning, under the heat alert policies he is entitled to an individual fan — he said he has yet to receive a replacement. (CDCR said it has not received any complaints about the heating issue, either.)
“When I was in segregation at Valley State” — another California facility that used to be women-designated — “I always filed 602s, because there was no ventilation and tons of people were having seizures,” said Angel Quiroz, who served 15 years in CDCR custody and has completed their parole obligations. “They’d always get ripped up, we knew it, so we kept our own copies. There were certain officers who were more compassionate, so we’d try and give our paperwork to them, but it never amounted to any changes.”
For many, the only respite is the care of peers and loved ones inside: a fan purchased for a friend, or left behind upon release; helping the mobility impaired and elderly get to and from the showers; keeping eyes on one another when nurses do not.
“We are generous,” said Carla, who is 73 and serving life without the possibility of parole. “We look out for the ones who don’t have, and no matter what we help each other. It’s the only way to survive the unsurvivable.”
As global climate change increases the portion of the United States that experiences extreme and unlivable heat, and the duration of the year during which this heat occurs, climatologists and students of climate-related migration predict mass population shifts, with millions of people leaving the Gulf Coast, the American Southwest, and the arid and semi-arid regions of California. This year’s record-breaking fires only heighten the urgency. And while migration patterns will be largely shaped by who has the resources and mobility to uproot and rebuild their lives — or, inversely, who have no other option — incarceration disallows any semblance of freedom to respond to the changing conditions of global warming. Incarcerated people, aptly known in this instance as wardens of the state, are entrapped by and dependent on state agencies’ ability to manage and in turn protect them from extreme weather. Through hurricanes, heat waves, and floods, federal, state, and countywide correctional departments have consistently failed or refused to anticipate the effects of climate disasters on incarcerated populations.
While prisons themselves have extremely large carbon footprints, incarcerated individuals, by no choice of their own, have lower per capita emissions than the majority of the population, particularly the middle class and wealthy. The disproportionate impact of the warming climate on incarcerated people is in keeping with a global pattern: those who emit less generally suffer more. The truth we all live with — our limited ability to overcome the state’s ineptness around climate change — is amplified for incarcerated people. Put simply, there’s nowhere to go: not another state, not another county, not even another room.
While those of us in the free world respond to a warming climate with whatever methods we have available to us, incarcerated people are forced to experience extreme heat on a continuum of ever-increasing punishment. “They don’t see it from a risk management standpoint,” said Dorotik, “they see it from a punishment standpoint. The logic is that if you’ve committed a crime, you have no right to a comfortable life. You deserve whatever you get.”