DETROIT – Inmates at Michigan's state prisons and those who advocate for their rights are raising concerns regarding the heat behind bars because most of the state’s 29 prisons don’t have air conditioning.
The heat is made worse by precautions and measures set in place to control the spread of COVID-19, according to advocates. Prisoners are required to always wear masks except when they’re eating, showering and sleeping. Prisoners say the reusable masks are made of thick cloth that makes it hard to breath through in the heat.
Chris Gautz, spokesman for the Michigan Department of Corrections, said the department has started distributing new masks made of lighter weight material after receiving several complaints, according to the Detroit Free Press.
“Prison is no place for a pandemic, but it's certainly no place for a pandemic in a heat wave,” said Jacqueline Williams, program associate with the American Friends Service Committee's Michigan Criminal Justice Program. She said prisoners tell her the heat is constant and “oppressive.”
Prisons not equipped with air conditioning house a growing number of people vulnerable to heat-related illness. Old age, pre-existing medical conditions and certain medications, like psychotropic drugs, can make people more sensitive to heat.
Derrick McKinney, an inmate at G. Robert Cotton Correctional Facility in Jackson, told the Free Press he worries for his health in the high temperatures.
When his cellmate passed out from the heat, he said no one responded to his initial calls for help. His cellmate regained consciousness after McKinney threw water on him. He said when he explained the situation to an officer making rounds 30 minutes later, the officer replied, “What do you want me to do about it?”
Gautz said health care staff have no record of a prisoner seeking assistance for heat-related illness and that there weren't any reports addressing the officer’s alleged response.
Prisoners have also complained about not having ice accessible during recent heat waves.
Six organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union, Citizens for Prison Reform and the American Friends Service Committee, in a July 2 letter to MDOC asked the department to make ice or ice water available three times a day to people in segregation or solitary confinement, among other requests.
Gautz said he doesn’t believe the department is required to provide ice to prisoners, “but we certainly do” in their drinking water. He said a handful of housing units have ice machines, as well as all kitchens and health care units.
Michael Perkins, a 55-year-old inmate at the Michigan Reformatory in Ionia, said temperatures in the cells can easily reach over 100 degrees when the doors are closed. He compared the feeling to sitting in a car with all the windows up on a hot day.
He said prisoners try to stay cool by continuously putting a wet cloth around their neck and forehead and by filling personal trash cans with water to stick their feet in.
“The only thing you can pretty much look forward to is, like, if it’s a cool morning,” he said.