Last month, the Oregon Department of Corrections offered men in state custody a way to “keep it cool” during the historically hot summer: $18 towels.
WHAT: Ergodyne “Chill-Its,” 13-by-29-inch evaporative cooling towels.
WHERE: Oregon State Correctional Institution in Salem.
WW obtained a copy of an order form distributed to inmates at OSCI, where about 860 are incarcerated and “only a couple of worksites” have air conditioning, including a DMV call center and some administrative areas, according to Department of Corrections spokeswoman Jennifer Black.
The form made an enticing offer: “Recreation Department Presents: Keep It Cool Towels. $18.00 ea.—Limit 2. Available to All Incentive Levels.…Deadline: July 11th. No Exceptions.…No refund if you go to Seg.”
PRICE: OSCI says it bought the towels for $9.35 each, then sold them for $18 to adults in custody.
Black confirms the sale of cooling towels was a fundraiser for the prison’s recreation department and that proceeds from the almost 100% markup would go toward new sports equipment for people incarcerated at OSCI: “The money will be used to purchase additional equipment for [adults in custody],” she said. “Examples include: basketballs, exercise equipment, etc.”
Inmates footed the bill by signing a fund transfer from their prison accounts, according to the form: “I understand that in signing this inmate trust account withdrawal request, I have consented to the withdrawal of funds from my account by the Oregon Department of Corrections.”
WHEN: The deadline to submit an order was Sunday, July 11—less than two weeks after a blistering heat wave during which two other Salem-area state prisons did not have central air conditioning, as WW previously reported.
WHY: It’s unclear whether the sale of cooling towels was related to the heat wave that baked the state in late June.
Temperatures that peaked at around 116 in the Central Willamette Valley prompted complaints from a prison rights group alleging shoddy air conditioning, insufficient supplies of ice, and scant access to drinking fountains.
Attorney Steve Gorham says his longtime client was among the OSCI inmates who received the towel order form. He noted the timing of the towel sale, which concluded about two weeks after many Salem-area prisoners endured the record-breaking heat wave without air conditioning.
“I’m shocked, really,” Gorham says. “Obviously, it’s a good marketing tool, but you’re talking about people who are stuck in the penitentiary. They should be giving [the towels] away rather than charging them double just to make money.”
Black says DOC administrators and staff have been working around the clock to adapt, like other state agencies, to hot weather conditions, but the department is “constrained by existing infrastructure and resources.”
“DOC is proud of the ways in which employees and [adults in custody] have worked together to prioritize health and safety during the recent heat wave,” she adds, “from obtaining additional supplies of ice to educating one another on the signs and symptoms of heat-related illness.”
HOW MANY: The prison received orders for approximately 125 cooling towels. “The fundraiser ended on July 11,” Black says, “so many towels have not been delivered yet.”