This is the beginning of a letter that the ACLU of Arizona verified was written inside Arizona’s only women’s prison. It is signed: “One of more than four thousand human beings living in Perryville women’s prison.”
When Marcia Powell died, it was “after being confined to a human cage at Perryville Prison in Goodyear for some four hours in the blazing Arizona sun,” Stephon Lemons reported for the Phoenix New Times in 2009. The medical examiner’s report described “thermal injuries” on her body and face. The high that day was 107 degrees. But her death was ruled an accident. Donna Hamm of the group Middle Ground Prison Reform told Lemons that “the autopsy does seem to raise the question of how far prison officials can go before something they do is ruled a reckless homicide.”
On Twitter this week, state Representative Athena Salman discussed the letter from Perryville, describing many of the issues that fuel and follow from Arizona’s increasing incarceration of women. In a country that jails more women per capita than any other, Arizona’s rate of female incarceration exceeds the national average of 133. The women in prison have families and children, for whom they are often the primary support, and by imprisoning them, the state hurts those families and children.
And, as the letter illuminates, people in Arizona prisons endure dangerous, even deadly, conditions, some of which specifically affect women. Salman was the senator who fought for the state to mandate the provision of free pads and tampons in prison. More recently, there have been reports about the insufficient supply of toilet paper. This month, attorneys representing women at Perryville filed a report as part of a federal lawsuit, alleging deficient and dangerous prenatal and postnatal care.
Also, as summer sets in, a seasonal concern about prisons resurfaces: Are they dangerously hot? This concern is not restricted to Arizona.
In Louisiana, Grace Toohey of The Advocate reported that “the unofficial start of summer this Memorial Day weekend marks what can be the most grueling, and dangerous, season” for thousands in prison. People in solitary confinement units, locked in their cells for at least 22 hours a day, are particularly vulnerable. Research conducted from 2015 through 2018 showed that in June, July, and August—when the heat index was, on average, above 100 degrees—incidents of self-harm and self-mutilation in those units became more frequent.
This week, WECT News reported on the health concerns of incarcerated people and prison staff in the 10 North Carolina prisons that have no air conditioning. In Texas, where 22 people in 14 years have died due to extreme heat in prisons, the state settled a long-running lawsuit last year, agreeing to install air conditioning in one prison where temperatures regularly exceed 100 degrees.
In 2015, a report by the Sabin Center on Climate Change at Columbia University discussed the effect that climate change and extreme weather would have on conditions in prisons. “Climate scientists forecast with a high degree of confidence that average temperatures in the US will rise throughout this century and that heat waves will become more frequent, more severe, and more prolonged,” the report said. “Extreme heat is already the most common cause of weather related death in the US and it will only become a graver threat to public health in the coming decades.”
The report emphasized two main solutions: reducing the number of people in prison and ensuring that those incarcerated are protected from the direct and indirect effects of rising temperatures. It also recognized the obstacles to taking sufficient action—including “societal animosity” toward people in prison.
Every week there seems to be another example of the extremes of cruelty and indifference that characterize the treatment of people in prison. The letter from Perryville confronts this: