After Blistering Heat Wave, Prison Rights Group Calls on State to Create Emergency Plan for Future Extreme Weather Events

The Department of Corrections says it treated five people for heat-related illness.

ice machine A sold-out ice freezer in Portland. (Justin Yau)

On June 28, as local temperatures climbed to a historic high of 116 degrees, the Oregon Justice Resource Center penned a letter calling on state officials to craft a “robust and comprehensive emergency plan” for Oregon prisons, some of which lack functioning central air conditioning.

“Emergency preparedness plans that meet the realities of our current world and environment should have already been created and shared,” OJRC attorney Juan Chavez wrote. “And yet, we continue to hear from AICs [adults in custody] that they are stuck fending for themselves despite clear warnings to the State that preemptive action should have been taken. Quite simply, it should not take an unprecedented heat wave to remind prison administrators to clean their air conditioning filters. It is unacceptable, and possibly unconstitutional.”

The letter, addressed to state officials including House Speaker Tina Kotek (D-Portland), Senate President Peter Courtney (D-Salem) and staff in both the governor and attorney generals’ offices, said inmates contacted their attorneys beginning last weekend with “dire news about the heat in their units.”

The reports of poor conditions stemmed primarily from three facilities: Coffee Creek Correctional Facility in Wilsonville, which is the only women’s prison in the state, Santiam Correctional Institution in Salem and Oregon State Penitentiary, also in Salem, which is the oldest prison in the state, and also Oregon’s only maximum-security facility.

As WW first reported, four state prisons, including the two aforementioned Salem facilities, do not have functioning central air conditioning. Heading into last weekend, Oregon Department of Corrections said it was prepared to keep those institutions cool using open windows, fans and swamp coolers.

Last weekend’s heat wave is the deadliest in Oregon history, with at least 45 deaths occurring in Multnomah County alone.

DOC spokeswoman Jennifer Black told WW on July 1 that there were no deaths or hospitalizations of people incarcerated or employed at state prisons, but that the agency treated five inmates in-house for heat-related illness at three prisons—Oregon State Penitentiary, Oregon State Correctional Institution in Salem and Two Rivers Correctional Institution in Umatilla—and that one DOC employee who was participating in a training needed fluids, but that the agency canceled the training once temperatures reached 85 degrees.

“Thankfully,” Black said, “all were treated at the institution and no one required hospitalization or infirmary care.”

Black added that staff at Oregon State Penitentiary picked up approximately 6,000 pounds of ice last weekend ”to subsidize the ice machines on site,” and that on Monday the maximum-security facility set up four large ice machines that it had ordered back in March.

The machines can “each produce up to 1,200 pounds of ice in a 24-hour period,” Black said. “Staff and [adults in custody] alike have worked hard over the last few days to get ice distributed to everyone who needs it.”

Despite those provisions, OJRC said in its letter that some adults in custody were deprived of cold water and access to ventilation. One man reportedly resorted to self-harm in order to convince prison staff to turn on air conditioning, according to the letter.

The letter further alleged that 120 men housed in a unit at Santiam Correctional Institution had to share one drinking fountain, which dispensed water ranging from lukewarm to hot water.

“When ice water is provided, there is not enough for the whole unit. Unit Officers are denying refills unless authorized, and the authorizations never come,” the letter said. “[Adults in custody] are in the custody and care of the state. State leaders must help to create and implement proactive steps and planning for ODOC to address dangerous conditions before they arise.”

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