Creative Commons License

Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.

A thermometer reads 110F, background of blazing sun
Photo by Xurzon on iStock

This summer, the country experienced unprecedented heat and increasing mortality associated with extreme temperatures. The crisis largely impacted elderly and impoverished citizens and was particularly dangerous for those behind bars.

States have different approaches for dealing with extreme temperatures in their prisons. Some prison administrative areas may have insulation and air conditioning, but those are extremely rare inside living units, which can be made out of concrete or cinder block with metal roofs.

Colorado state prisons have evaporative coolers — sometimes called swamp coolers — but the devices can only do so much. They help make the daytime common area relatively cool, but do little to cool the cells after lockdown.

Corrections officers do random temperature checks throughout the day. At Fremont Correctional Facility, cells on the south-facing side of the third tier of a 250-man unit usually exceed 90 degrees during the summer days. That means much of the burden to make living conditions bearable lies with individual inmates.

Our best recourse is to purchase a small box fan.

Fans and other items are sold through Canteen Services, a program that functions like a catalog mail-order system. An 8-inch Clear Tunes fan costs $29.66 as of July 2023. Orders are placed at the beginning of the month, and if items are in stock they are delivered between three and seven weeks later, depending on the facility.

But availability is an issue. Canteen workers at Fremont report that some, though not all, fan orders were filled in May 2023. But that is the only month fan orders were processed so far this year. They are far more likely to be listed as “Item Out of Stock.”

With the most recent heat wave, the value of a fan on the black market increased to almost $100, and could be traded for stamps, coffee and canteen food. These fans may be confiscated in cell shakedowns since they are not on official property lists. But as one inmate said recently after his was taken: “Two months of comfort is totally worth it.”

Another problem with charging inmates for fans is the excessive cost to those who live on only “state pay.” In Colorado, most working inmates are paid 86 cents a day, depending on their assignment. After a 20% restitution fee, this comes to 68 cents a day for a maximum of 23 days per month. Light-duty workers — those who are elderly or disabled and can only hold certain jobs like wiping down tables, handrails and phones — are paid half that. This money is intended for the purchase of hygiene supplies, stamps and other basic necessities that approximate a dignified life behind bars.

In order to afford a fan (that may or may not come), an inmate on state pay would have to refrain from ordering anything — not a single bar of soap or toothbrush — for two months. An elderly, light-duty inmate who is arguably most in need of that fan would have to forgo their necessities for four months.

Minimum wage workers in Denver, making roughly $18 an hour, could afford one of these fans in a little over an hour and a half.

What can we do if we are unable to afford a fan or if they’re out of stock? Improvise and adapt.

Bill Lomax, a man incarcerated at Fremont, described one source of relief: “There is a broken vent so the swamp cooler blows directly down onto one table,” he said. “I get up 20 minutes early and then sprint down there — to the coolest spot in the pod.”

Daniel Sopiwnik uses a different method: “Stainless steel toilets. Cold water,” he said. “I just sit and flush and flush.”

“I grew up in Colorado,” Sopiwnik added, “so I know that in winter I can always put on more layers. During summer I can only get so naked before it lands me in segregation.”

Will anything be done about extreme heat conditions in U.S. prisons? In Colorado, that appears doubtful. The Colorado Department of Corrections requested a billion-dollar budget this year. Installing more air conditioning is not mentioned.

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Global Forum Online has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

Bob Eisenman is a writer incarcerated in Colorado.