Dog Days Turn Deadly in America’s Prisons
First published in his blog Unsilent Generation on 1 September 2009
The U.S. government made a point of building new air-conditioned facilities for prisoners at Guantanamo Bay. However, many of our equally hot southern states do not share that concern for human decency, and many deaths have and are occurring as the result.
The summer of 2009 had barely begun when Marcia Powell, a 48-year old inmate at Arizona’s Perryville Prison, was baked to death. Powell, whom court records show had a history of schizophrenia, substance abuse, and mild mental retardation, was serving a 27-month sentence for prostitution. At about 11 a.m. on May 19, a day when the Arizona sun had driven the temperature to 108 degrees, she was parked outdoors in an unroofed, wire-fenced holding cell while awaiting transfer to another part of the prison. A deputy warden and two guards had been stationed in a control center 20 yards away, but nearly four hours had passed when she was found collapsed on the floor of the human cage. Doctors at a local hospital pronounced Powell comatose from heat stroke, and she died later that night after being taken off life support. Two local churches stepped in to provide a proper funeral and burial.
Arizona Department of Corrections director Charles Ryan said the guards had been suspended pending a criminal investigation, and expressed “condolences to Ms. Powell’s family and loved ones”–a strange statement, considering Ryan had made the decision to quickly pull the plug on his comatose prisoner because, he said, no next of kin could be found. In fact, as Stephen Lemons of the Phoenix New Times has reported, Powell was judged an “incapacitated adult” and placed under public guardianship–but her guardians were not consulted before the ADC elected to let her die. Lemons also noted some unsavory chapters in Ryan’s recent career:
Following Powell’s death, Ryan banned most uses of unshaded outdoor holding cells in Arizona, except in “extraordinary circumstances.” Most Southern states already restrict their use. But baking in the sun is only one of many ways to die in America’s prisons in the summertime. Recent years have seen scattered reports of heat-related prison deaths in California and Texas, among others. The prevalence of mental illness among the victims may be linked to anti-psychotic drugs, which raise the body temperature and cause dehydration, and at the same time have a tranquilizing effect that may mask thirst.
In 2006, 21-year-old Timothy Souders, another mentally ill prisoner, died of heat exhaustion and dehydration at a Jackson, Michigan prison during an August heat wave. For the four days prior to his death, Souders had been shackled to a cement slab in solitary confinement because he had been acting up. That entire period was captured on surveillance videotapes, which according to news reports clearly showed his mental and physical deterioration.
The vast majority of U.S. civilian prisons and jails are not air conditioned. (In contrast, the U.S. made a point of building new air-conditioned facilities for prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, and phasing out the older structures.) In Texas, only 19 of 112 prisons have air-conditioning. Earlier this summer, the chair of Texas State Senate’s Judiciary Committee, John Whitmire (D-Houston), told the Houston Chronicle that enduring the heat is “part of the reality of going to prison. There are a lot of inconveniences to serving time. There’s no question it’s hot.” He said he thought few Texans would be sympathetic to the prisoners’ suffering.
Apparently anticipating a similar lack of sympathy, the Florida Department of Corrections proudly advertises the absence of air-conditioning in most of its prisons. On a web page that debunks a host of “misconceptions” that might indicate soft treatment of Florida’s prisoners, it assures readers that the majority of inmates live without air-conditioning or cable television.
In a 2002 report on the risks of heat-related illness at the Mississippi State Penitentiary in Parchman, compiled for the ACLU, a physician who reviewed conditions on Death Row wrote the following:
A first-hand account of enduring the summer heat at the nation’s largest maximum-security prison, the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, was provided by Kenny “Zulu” Whitmore. Whitmore, who has served more than 30 years of a life sentence, much of it in solitary confinement, kept a journal during a 2007 August heat wave:
More recently, in letters to a friend, Whitmore described this past summer at “the Gola”:
Born in 1936, James Ridgeway has been reporting on politics for more than 45 years. He is currently Senior Washington Correspondent for Mother Jones, and recently wrote a blog on the 2008 presidential election for the Guardian online. He previously served as Washington Correspondent for the Village Voice; wrote for Ramparts and The New Republic; and founded and edited two independent newsletters, Hard Times and The Elements.
Ridgeway is the author of 16 books, including The Five Unanswered Questions About 9/11, It’s All for Sale: The Control of Global Resources, and Blood in the Face: The Ku Klux Klan, Aryan Nations, Nazi Skinheads, and the Rise of a New White Culture. He co-directed a companion film to Blood in the Face and a second documentary film, Feed, and has co-produced web videos for GuardianFilms.
Additional information and samples of James Ridgeway’s work can be found on his web site, http://jamesridgeway.net.
This article is republished in the Baltimore Chronicle with permission of the author.
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