Diane Dimond: Prisoners’ summer swelter

Diane Dimond

I received an unusual letter from Arizona recently. It was written by an inmate held at the Lewis state prison complex in Buckeye, Arizona, and signed by 39 other prisoners. Their complaint? That life inside the Buckley unit there is like hell.

The record-breaking heat there this summer has them “baking in their cells,” according to inmate Robert Navarro. He says the temperature inside his corner cell — where the relentless sun beats down on his walls all day — was recently recorded as high as 112 degrees. He has no windows, no fans, no ice, no chilled water and no relief, day after sweltering day.

Regular readers of this column know I’m no bleeding heart. But we wouldn’t allow a dog to be subjected to conditions like that. So why, in locations where triple-digit heat is the norm, are prison officials allowed to house inmates in such life-threatening environments?

“I didn’t realize it was o.k. for our nation to treat our incarcerated people inhumanely,” Navarro wrote to me. “Especially when they make such a big deal about prisoner’s treatment in Cuba and other cruel countries.”

He is serving 25 to life for aggravated assault, and he gave me permission to use his name knowing harsh disciplinary steps might be taken against him for speaking out. Space does not permit publication of the more than three dozen other names of inmates who signed the letter.

“We get to take a shower once in a while to cool off (then) its right back to the oven,” Navarro explained. “It’s equivalent to opening the oven to rotate the turkey.”

By the way, according to AccuWeather, the August temperature forecast for Buckeye, Arizona, shows it will be well over 100 degrees every day but one.

Naturally, the guards cannot leave cell doors open for air circulation. But according to inmates, if officials were to remove the bottom door plates (which are there to stop the passing of contraband), they might get a little relief. Apparently, that request has been denied. More importantly, inmates’ requests for a daily delivery of a bag of ice has also been refused.

“Our cell water is always hot,” Navarro says. “We’ve asked for a bucket of ice to cool off our core temps but the answer is no.”

Prisoners’ loved ones who have complained were told by the Department of Corrections liaison office: “Inmates may order drinks through their commissary orders as well as ice, if they so choose to. They may also purchase fans.”

But here’s the dirty little secret: The prison commissary at Lewis is only open one day a week, according to inmates. As a girlfriend of one told me: “I suppose he could buy 7 bags of ice on that one day but they would melt within a few hours. What good is that?”

The department ignored my required written list of questions about the heat issue. But I got ahold of a message sent to worried family members from Deputy Warden James Roan. He said they are trying to combat the heat by checking swamp coolers on a regular basis, “but with this heat and humidity they are only so effective.”

The Lewis complex, situated 40 miles outside Phoenix, has had its share of violence in the past. There was a riot and a 15-day hostage situation in 2004, a grisly murder in 2010 where the victim was mutilated, and an inmate death by beating earlier this year, which remains under investigation. There have been complaints by high-ranking employees about dangerously low staffing levels. It is chilling to think that inmates might stage another uprising so they can be sent to lockdown where they believe it is air-conditioned.

Someone in the department should be taking urgent steps to defuse this situation — something more than simply waiting for cooler temperatures to arrive.

Look, the Arizona prison system isn’t the only one with this inhumane hotbox-like situation. Countless inmates across the country are held in sweltering conditions. For example, a recent civil suit in Texas revealed 22 inmates have died of heat exhaustion there since 1998 and most prisons in Texas still don’t have air conditioning.

Even though judges from Mississippi to Wisconsin and states in between have ruled that housing prisoners in too hot or too cold conditions is inhumane and unconstitutional, it still continues. Budget issues are most frequently mentioned as the culprit.

Correction officials like to remind civilians that their staff also endures the heat inside the prison. But guards can grab a cold drink and step into a cool office for a break — and they get to escape to their air-conditioned car and head home after their shift. For the prisoners, the heat is unrelenting.

Some will say, “They shouldn’t do the crime if they can’t do the time.” But it has never been the American way to treat our own people worse than we would treat an animal. Inmate Navarro is right. We would be quick to condemn these conditions in any other country. Why is it OK here?

Web: www.dianedimond.com