Ore. inmates struggle with extreme heatwave; advocates call for better cooling systems
On Monday, temperatures reached 117 degrees in Salem, where two facilities without air conditioning are located
By Jayati Ramakrishnan
SALEM, Ore. — Oregon’s heatwave has hit prison inmates particularly hard.
Inmates have lodged complaints about sweltering temperatures over the past several days, prompting prison lawyers to call on legislators to provide them immediate relief from the conditions.
In a Monday letter to legislators, Oregon Justice Resource Center lawyers Juan Chavez and Zach Winston detailed some of the “dire” conditions that inmates have experienced. They said older, immunocompromised and mentally ill inmates have struggled even more from the heat.
They said the majority of complaints about the heat had come from inmates at the Oregon State Penitentiary, Coffee Creek Correctional Facility and Santiam Correctional Institution. Two of those facilities are in Salem, where temperatures reached 117 degrees on Monday.
The lawyers called for short-term measures — like increasing cooling and ventilation — and urged lawmakers to support long-term solutions to systemic problems in Oregon’s prisons.
Oregon Department of Corrections spokesperson Betty Bernt said five of the agency’s 14 prisons do not have air conditioning: the Oregon State Penitentiary, Santiam Correctional Institution and the soon-to-close Mill Creek Correctional Facility in Salem, as well as two facilities on the coast.
“These facilities rely on alternative cooling methods,” Bernt said in an email. “The Department of Corrections makes every attempt to keep the adults in our custody and employees comfortable during summer heat waves.”
She said each prison has its own plan for heatwaves. Those plans vary based on the prison’s infrastructure and other factors like outside temperatures.
Bernt said that at prisons without air conditioning, the corrections department uses swamp coolers and fans, provides ice water to inmates and staff, and opens windows if outdoor temperatures are not too hot.
She said the agency also provides shade to those working outside and gives inmates additional breaks and alternates work schedules to accommodate the heat. If the weather is hot enough, she said they may shut down certain work areas or outdoor activities.
But OJRC representatives said some of those measures are inadequate or not being implemented at all.
Chavez and Winston said some inmates had complained about not being provided with enough cold water. At Santiam Correctional Institution, they said, there is one lukewarm water fountain for every 120 inmates on a unit. When ice water is provided, they said, there is not enough for the whole unit, and correctional officers don’t refill the cold water unless authorized.
“The authorizations never come,” the attorneys wrote.
The lawyers also said elderly and immunocompromised inmates were facing increased strain because of the heat and recounted a story of one inmates with mental health problems who had resorted to self-harm because of the temperatures.
One Oregon State Penitentiary inmate said he would not be able to get through the heatwave without air conditioning and began harming himself as a result, according to Chavez and Winston.
Bernt did not respond to the specific allegations, but said the Department of Corrections was looking into them, and would inform OJRC of any findings.
Chavez and Winston said their organization would continue to monitor prison conditions amid the heatwave and take legal action if the problems weren’t alleviated.
Oregon’s prisons have faced scrutiny for their handling of recent inclement weather, including wildfires last September.
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