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Our Overheated Prison System

Authored By John Fabricius

I was sentenced to prison on my birthday. It was June 2003, and I was going to the Arizona Department of Corrections-Lewis complex in Buckeye, a small town about 40 miles west of Phoenix, in the middle of the Sonoran Desert. The average temperature in June in this seared and barren landscape is about 106; however, high temperatures often reach 118. At the Lewis Complex, there are no trees, foliage, grass, or escape of any kind from the relentless blazing sun, except the un-air-conditioned concrete prison buildings. It was clear that not just prison, but also the environment, was to be my punishment.

On my first day at the prison, I was assigned to work on the “afternoon rock crew,” the first job for every new arrival. The rock crew is penal labor with a single meaningless task: walk the grounds and rake rocks. We were required to be “in compliance”, meaning we had to wear state-provided long pants, a short-sleeved t-shirt that had to be tucked in at all times, socks, and deck shoes. We were not issued a hat or sunblock, and it was a violation of prison policy to wrap a shirt around your head. The only authorized head cover was a state-issued baseball hat, which you had to purchase from the commissary and was delivered 2 weeks after purchase; that is if you were lucky enough to have funds available, which many did not. The pay for this job was just $0.10 per hour. 

By 4:00 pm on my first day, when I went in to be counted before dinner, I was sunburned, dehydrated, felt weak, and had a terrible headache. Then I found out I was one of the lucky ones. After the count cleared, I saw two younger men on my rock crew and several older men standing around them, worried they were about to be wrongly punished for fighting.

They both looked as though they had been severely beaten. Their heads and faces had swollen significantly, they had black eyes, they had blisters, and they were both reporting how sick they felt.

Except there had been no fight. Exposure to the intense sun had given both these men Sun Poisoning, which is an extreme form of sunburn that has symptoms that can appear a few hours after exposure and include extreme inflammation of the skin, blisters, headache, nausea, dehydration, and fever.

In addition to the Sun Poisoning these men had developed, we all had developed Heat Stress, a condition that occurs when people are exposed to extreme heat or work in hot environments. Heat stress can result in heat stroke, heat exhaustion, heat cramps, or heat rashes. When security arrived to escort us to dinner, they immediately seized the two sick men, assuming they had been in a fight. It took hours for these poor men to convince security they were suffering from sun exposure and needed to be seen by medical staff, not security.  

The next day we all assembled again for our shifts in the sun, but nothing had changed. Again we were not provided hats, long-sleeve shirts, sunscreen or anything other than a stern admonition from the correctional officer in charge of the crew that anyone who put lotion on would be subject to disciplinary action for malingering if they got sick. 

That was my first day in an Arizona prison. I spent the next 15 years in the Arizona Department of Corrections, and the stories of heat stress illnesses, skin cancer, heat stroke, and other heat-related medical conditions were legion. But also easily preventable, had it not been for the inhumane treatment of the men and women held in the Arizona Department of Corrections. 

And yet it could have been worse. I was still alive, unlike  Marcia Powell, a 48-year-old woman who died after correctional officers put her in an unshielded holding cage for four hours.  Marcia was in direct sunlight and didn’t have water or protection from the sun and heat, which was a high of 107 that day. Despite repeated requests for water and to be taken out of the cage, the correctional officers ignored and disregarded Marcia. 

After four hours, Marcia collapsed in the holding cage. By the time correctional officers responded to Marcia and took her lifeless body to the hospital, medical personnel measured her core body temperature as at least 108. They say “at least” because doctors said her temperature could have been higher, but the hospital thermometer maxed out at 108

Across the country, climate change is making heat stress an immediate concern. Workers in warehouses, fields, and trucks are all at risk, which is why the Biden Administration has responded with new requirements for things like shade and rest. Yet no such relief has come for our incarcerated population.  

The danger isn't limited to just direct exposure. The state prisons in Arizona, for instance, are not air-conditioned. Most have evaporative cooling systems that provide little to no cooling inside the prison buildings. With daily high temperatures running between 100-115 and night-time temperatures that don’t fall below 90, day-in and day-out, the concrete and steel buildings become unbearably hot. When you also consider that many of these housing assignments are at maximum population density, it’s easy to understand how dangerous this environment is.

And it is only getting worse. Climate change is continuing to produce record-high temperatures, while a return to “tough on crime” policies will mean more people in already overstuffed prisons.  

As President Biden’s actions on heat stress for workers show, the danger is real and immediate. Yet, once again, the incarcerated are excluded. The good news is that this Congress has passed billions of dollars to invest in a green economy and green infrastructure. This will save lives and reduce temperatures. But this support must be extended to our prisons, which are already suffering from severely neglected infrastructure. It is time to understand that our prisons are on the front lines of the climate crisis. By understanding the way our climate crisis contributes to our incarceration crisis, we can take steps that improve both and save lives in the process.

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