Get Informed

Subscribe to our newsletters for regular updates, analysis and context straight to your email.

Close Newsletter Signup

People in prison face extreme heat and extreme indifference

What you’ll read today

  • Spotlight: People in prison face extreme heat and extreme indifference

  • A new moral panic targets moms

  • The Appeal Podcast: Criminal justice reform hits roadblock in Arizona

  • New York does away with ban on gravity knives

  • The pressure on prosecutors to act unethically

In the Spotlight


Ten years ago, a woman sat in a cage in temperatures well over 100 degrees for hour after hour after hour until she finally succumbed to the heat and died. Many people had a chance to help her, but they all ignored her pleas. Her name was Marcia Powell. As we approach the ten year anniversary of her needless death, those of us who remain caged are reminded of how little has changed when it comes to the way that the Arizona Department of Corrections treats its prisoners.

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:

While the men’s prisons tend to garner more media attention due to their dangerousness (the lock situation at Lewis prison being the most recent), the women of Perryville are in danger as well. We are in danger of dying in a cage like Marcia Powell did ten years before. We are in danger of dying from injuries and diseases that go undiagnosed and untreated due to the substandard medical care. The dangers we all face as prisoners of the Arizona Department of Corrections, whether they be from fire due to doors that can only be unlocked with a key (we have these here on Santa Cruz too) or from cancer left to spread unchecked, all stem from the same root cause: the failure on the part of the staff to recognize that those of us living in prisons are human beings. A prison sentence should not be a death sentence.

Stories From The Appeal

[Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brown. Photo by Cavan Images/Getty]

A New Moral Panic Targets Moms. In Pennsylvania, mothers are harshly penalized for leaving children unattended in vehicles, even for several minutes. [Joshua Vaughn]

The Appeal Podcast: Criminal Justice Reform Hits Roadblock in Arizona.  Activist Caroline Isaacs of the American Friends Service Committee discusses the fight to make her state’s repressive drug laws a thing of the past.  [Adam H. Johnson]

Stories From Around the Country

New York does away with ban on gravity knives: After twice vetoing earlier versions of the bill, Governor Andrew Cuomo signed into law a measure that would decriminalize possession of gravity knives. Arrests for possession of gravity knives—frequently used as work tools—had disproportionately targeted low-income people of color. In March, the Southern District of New York ruled that the definition of gravity knife in the law that criminalized possession was unconstitutionally vague. A spokesperson for Mayor Bill de Blasio, speaking to the Queens Daily Eagle, expressed his opposition to the new law and continued support for criminalization. [David Brand / Queens Daily Eagle]

The pressure on prosecutors to act unethically: Eric Hillman was prosecuting a case of intoxicated assault in Nueces County, Texas, over four years ago when he interviewed a witness who said the defendant had not been intoxicated at the time of the incident. When Hillman’s supervisor told him he did not need to inform the defense about the witness, the assistant district attorney called two ethics hotlines and both said he had a duty to disclose. He decided to do so and informed his supervisor of his decision. On the day of trial, he was fired for “failing to follow instructions.” This week, the Open File blog discussed the lawsuit in which Hillman alleged that he was fired for refusing to withhold exculpatory evidence, and its fate in the courts. In March, the Texas Supreme Court unanimously upheld the trial court’s opinion, finding that governmental immunity foreclosed the possibility of a lawsuit against the district attorney’s office, but “the justices were not happy.” Meanwhile, Hillman has applied to 80 law enforcement jobs and been rejected 80 times. The blog post concludes: “In the future, when a law enforcement official claims that there is no code of silence, remember this case.” [Open File]

Thanks for reading. We’ll see you on Monday.

Have a tip for The Appeal? Write to us at A good tip is a clear description of newsworthy information that is supported by documented evidence.

The Appeal in Your Inbox

Subscribe to our newsletters for regular updates, analysis and context straight to your email.