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Extreme Heat A Concern At Prisons That Lack Air Conditioning

Flags fly at half-staff on March 24, 2021 outside the Anamosa State Penitentiary, one day after state officials say two inmates killed a nurse and a correctional officer while attempting to escape the prison.
Kate Payne
Iowans across the state are being urged to limit their heat exposure this week due to dangerously hot weather. The conditions are especially concerning at some of the state's prisons, which lack air conditioning.

Dangerously high heat is posing a threat to vulnerable people throughout Iowa this week, with high humidity sending heat indices soaring well above 100 degrees in some areas. The extreme temperatures are especially concerning for some of the state’s prisons, which lack air conditioning.

Iowans across the state are being warned to limit their exposure to the heat and to seek out air conditioned areas in order to prevent heat-related illness and even death.

But some incarcerated individuals don’t really have that option. Housing units at the Mount Pleasant Correctional Facility and the Anamosa State Penitentiary don’t have air conditioning.

Mark Dotson is a formerly incarcerated Iowan who served time at Anamosa. He says the heat can be oppressive within the sprawling limestone fortress, especially on the prison’s upper floors.

“You can't keep it cool. And I mean it gets so hot in there the walls sweat,” Dotson said. “Your toilet sweats because it's…the fluid in there makes it cooler so it creates condensation. And I mean, you'll have pools of water on your floor. That's how bad it gets in there.”

Some inmates and their loved ones were complaining about the high temperatures inside the facilities even before this week’s excessive heat. They’ve also been raising concerns about recent restrictions put in place after two inmates at Anamosa allegedly killed two guards earlier this spring.

Advocates say the limitations implemented by Department of Corrections officials mean some inmates’ movements are significantly restricted and they are confined to their cells for much of the day.

“You may not be aware, of how warm it can get in a building with 300+ prisoners and staff – but it gets 'hot',” one inmate wrote to a loved one in June, according to correspondence shared with IPR. The inmate’s name is being withheld because they fear retaliation.

“More and more are getting headaches, & having breathing problems, do to the quality of the air. A majority of us are still in the cellhouse, most of the day – except for an hour & a half – weather permitting – to go to the yard,” the inmate added.

Dotson says he’s worried the heat could further enflame tensions in the prisons, which advocates say are critically overcrowded and understaffed.

“Dealing with the heat and the conditions and what that does to a person's mind,” Dotson said, “that's the most worrisome. When you are so uncomfortable it's unbearable. And you're trying to…you're just trying to breathe.”

The lack of air conditioning was brought up at a recent Iowa Board of Corrections meeting, during which board members voted in support of naming Marcy Stroud to be the next warden of the Mount Pleasant prison. She had previously served as the facility’s deputy warden.

“I just want to know how are you guys faring with the heat? With no air conditioning up there at Mount Pleasant? What are your plans to take care of that?” board member Larry Kudej asked Stroud, with a laugh.

“It’s always on the major maintenance list,” Stroud replied, as others at the meeting chuckled. “We try to keep it at the top but somehow it keeps getting bumped down a little bit.”

A DOC spokesperson did not reply to requests for comment on this story.

Kate Payne was an Iowa City-based Reporter