Health inspectors visit prisons after receiving complaints about heat
State public health officials inspected several correctional facilities this week after receiving complaints that prison temperatures had risen above 100 degrees during the recent heat wave and created intolerable conditions.
MCI-Norfolk, MCI-Cedar Junction in Walpole, and MCI-Concord were singled out for inspections based on reports conveyed to the state Department of Public Health by advocates for prisoners, said Ann Scales, a spokeswoman.
The inspection conducted Wednesday at MCI-Norfolk found the complaints to be unsubstantiated, Scales said. A DPH spokesman said it didn’t have updates about the other inspections, which are expected to continue next week.
Advocates from two groups said they became alarmed after they received reports about some inmates struggling from a combination of heat and poor ventilation at MCI-Norfolk and MCI-Cedar Junction.
Leslie Walker, executive director of Prisoners’ Legal Services, a Boston nonprofit that advocates for the humane treatment of inmates, said the problem arises whenever temperatures surge.
“This is a national problem,” she said.
The availability of air conditioning varies throughout the state prison system.
For example, Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center, the state’s maximum security prison, is climate controlled, Walker said.
Parts of MCI-Cedar Junction and MCI-Walpole are air conditioned and standing fans are used in the rest of the facility, the state’s Department of Correction said. Ice and tap water are available at both prisons.
DOC spokesman Jason Dobson said that the agency is “committed to providing a safe, secure environment for all,” and that staff at all institutions monitor the weather, water quality, and environmental factors throughout the day.
MCI-Norfolk and MCI-Cedar Junction also make medical providers available around the clock, he said.
Conditions recorded at Norwood Memorial Airport, the closest government weather station to Walpole and Norfolk, showed temperatures exceeding 90 degrees between June 29 and July 5, said National Weather Service meteorologist Matthew Belk.
One inmate at MCI-Cedar Junction passed out in a housing unit because of the heat and elderly prisoners were being held on high levels of the facility where conditions were the hottest, said Christine Mitchell, an organizer with #DeeperThanWater, a coalition that has been involved in supporting prisoners at MCI-Norfolk. State environmental regulators fined the DOC over sediment-filled water at the Norfolk facility after the prison’s water system failed in 2011.
“We’re afraid that if something doesn’t change, someone is going to die from the heat in there,” Mitchell said.
Some inmates at MCI-Cedar Junction reported heat-related rashes and blisters and most are prohibited from purchasing personal fans, she said. Most prisoners are only at the facility for a short period of time, and that’s why they are not permitted to buy fans, according to the DOC.
A DOC official said two inmates were treated for heat-related complaints and no elderly prisoners asked to be relocated because of the heat.
The advocates said they want all prisoners to get personal fans, bottled water, and medical attention when the heat soars.
Douglas Rogers, 47, a member of the board of directors for Black and Pink, an organization that supports LGBTQ and HIV-positive prisoners, said that on July 2, he visited an inmate at MCI-Norfolk who complained about breathing problems.
The prisoner has asthma, but can’t afford to purchase a personal fan, said Rogers, who declined to name the inmate because he fears correction officials will retaliate against him. Prisoners can purchase fans at the prison for $26, according to DPH.
“He was sweating during the visit and he said he had been sweating in the cell block,” said Rogers, who was imprisoned at MCI-Norfolk from 1992 to 1995. “It was extremely hot. I cut the visit short.”
Elizabeth Matos, a lawyer for Prisoners’ Legal Services, said she met with a client at MCI-Norfolk during the heat wave.
“It was pretty much sweltering,” said Matos. “There was no ventilation happening. It was pretty uncomfortable.”
She said she took bottled water for her clients from an iced-filled bucket set out for correction officers and lawyers.
Alyssa Hackett, an attorney with the Committee for Public Counsel Services, said she met with a client at MCI-Framingham, a women’s prison, during the heat wave. She said the client reported that the air conditioning for her housing unit had broken and was undergoing repairs.
The visiting area where they met also didn’t have working air conditioning, Hackett said.
“It was extremely hot,” she said. “I was sweating.”
State public health regulations require prison cells to be adequately heated between Sept. 15 and June 15, when cooler temperatures are more likely. The regulations do not include cooling requirements for prison cells during hot weather, Walker said.
The rules do mandate ventilation for cells and other habitable spaces. Ventilation with a window is recommended for each cell, the regulations say.