Day after day of sweltering triple-digit temperatures are creating miserable conditions for thousands of inmates and guards inside Oklahoma prisons.
Most cellblocks in the state Corrections Department's men's units are not air-conditioned, officials said.
Inmates are complaining, with several areas of the state having already experienced 100-degree or greater temperatures for more than 50 days this year.
A recent check of the temperature in one cell revealed a temperature of 96 degrees, said Jerry Massie, Corrections Department spokesman. Even some of the air-conditioned cellblocks have experienced periodic outages because buildings and air-conditioning units in the prison system are so old, Massie said.
Still, inmates are adapting better than most people probably expect, said Dr. Don Sutmiller, chief medical officer for the Corrections Department.
There have been no reported cases of inmates suffering heat strokes this year, he said.
“Statewide, this summer, we have had a few offenders at some facilities who have been seen or treated for heat-related complaints,” he said.
The vast majority were treated by just cooling them off with cold water, a fan and cool environment, he said.
“We have had a handful treated where we have given them IV fluids” he said, adding he knew of just one case where an inmate was transported to an emergency room for heat-related symptoms. That inmate was also treated with IV fluids, he said.
“The first year or two I worked in corrections I was just waiting for people to start falling out (during heat waves) and they didn't,” said Sutmiller, who has worked for the department nearly nine years. “That's not to say that somebody couldn't, but they just adapt well — even when it's this bad.”
Sutmiller said inmates learn little adaptation tricks, like dampening their cover sheets before they go to bed at night and setting fans so they blow over the tops of them, creating a cooling effect through evaporation.
Heat warnings issued
Three heat warnings already have been sent out to institutions this year, advising correctional workers to be on the lookout for inmates suffering heat-related symptoms and discussing things that can be done to reduce risk, Sutmiller said.
Workers are told to keep an especially close eye on inmates who are older than 55, have chronic illnesses or who are taking psychotropic medicines or other medicines that make them more susceptible to heat-related illnesses, he said.
Prison workers do things like give inmates more ice and water and try not to have them work out in the heat as much, he said.
The medical staff will issue fans to medically fragile inmates and other inmates have the opportunity to purchase fans, Sutmiller said.
All the prison infirmaries are air-conditioned and vulnerable inmates are sometimes moved there during the daytime to prevent problems, he said.
“I'm not trying to say that I think these guys are comfortable,” Sutmiller said.
That apparently is an understatement, judging from telephone calls and emails The Oklahoman has received recently from inmates, their families and friends. Complaints have come both from within the state prison system and the federal prison at El Reno.
“They expect us to go out and work like men in construction, plumbing, landscape and various other trades and then want us to come ‘home' to the extreme heat and misery because we have no A/C. No one can sleep in these conditions,” an El Reno federal inmate said in an email. “I know if an individual in the free world were to have his animals in these conditions he would face ‘cruelty to animals' charges in a heartbeat.”
El Reno prison officials did not return telephone calls seeking comment
Susan Cosby, an Amarillo, Texas, licensed professional counselor who communicates regularly with a McAlester inmate, said the inmate describes the heat as horrible.
“I can't talk about it without crying,” Cosby said. “I think there are going to be deaths there ... I live in the Panhandle of Texas. I can go to the mall. I can go outside, but there's nothing they can do.”
Another woman, the aunt of another McAlester inmate, said, “My nephew tells me he just sits there and drips sweat.”
There are about 18,000 inmates in state-operated facilities, and a majority of them are housed in cells that aren't air-conditioned, Massie said. In general, the women's prisons, and men's death row and disciplinary units do have air-conditioning, as well as a minority of the other men's units, he said. Outages are a common problem in some of the older prisons.
“I think we would prefer to have air conditioning, but it would be difficult to get much public support for it,” Massie said. “It's pretty cost prohibitive.”