On a day when the temperature has been about 112° for many days, put on your heaviest polyester pants and t-shirt, go out in your garage with a very small fan and spend the day. Have lunch there, soup (yes, soup) and a baloney sandwich. Sweep, mop and clean. Watch a tiny T.V. Read. Try to nap on a plastic cot. Eat a lukewarm dinner. Spend the night. This is Arizona prison in the summer.
Summer lasts nearly four months, 1440 minutes a day of sheer, unrelenting, blast furnace heat. The small bit of grass on the field chokes and turns brown. The few precious trees are gasping and pitiful. Looking forlorn, the birds wander into the community showers to drink the stagnant water pooling on the hot concrete.
Prison yards are very spread out. We walk everywhere, blocks and blocks between buildings. No shade. The offices and classrooms are air-conditioned, but that’s it. Evaporative coolers slog away to cool the cells and cafeterias. They work until the temperature hits 90°. After that, the cells become concrete coffins of heat. There is no relief.
One summer, when the temperature had been 117° for days, there were nineteen heat related seizures in one morning, and there is more heat exhaustion than I can count. It all ends up costing money in medical attention. One way or another, the tax payer pays.
My first prison summer was horrific. The previous director had retired the year before, leaving a final gift to the population. He had every inmates’ fans removed. In Arizona, that would be cruel under normal conditions, but I was going through radiation and my chest had third degree burns, blistered, raw, and bleeding. Christine, my partner in cancer treatment, was worse than I was. We were both suffering from searing pain exacerbated by the heat. Christine’s father actually called the prison, offering a couple of fans for medical use as a humanitarian gesture. Request denied.
In the middle of June, Gina was so sick, the heat adding to her misery. Finally, Gina’s excrutiating death opened some eyes. We had a town meeting to vent our frustrations and the new director came. Very little changed in Medical after that meeting, despite the promises. However, the new director did approve fans. It was August by then and the heat lay over the prison like a shroud. We were elated over the new ruling, but it took nine months for prison officials to source an acceptable clear plastic fan to sells us. Thankfully, they materialized in April, just in time for the next summer’s heat. The small plastic fan successfully pushes the hot air around, and if you keep your t-shirt damp, it feels almost cool.
The five summers I spent on Santa Cruz before moving to Piestewa were torture. Each year, I passed out from the heat. Once, an officer found me unconscious on the floor of my room. Twice, I collapsed on the yard on the searing concrete, and once I was sweeping and I just fell out over the threshold. See, besides the heat, the pill I take to keep the cancer at bay, causes hot flashes as a side effect. Sitting in a concrete coffin of heat with hot flashes is a different kind of torture.
Let’s get back to your garage. What can you do in your stifling garage to relieve the heat? You can’t go to the fridge for an ice cold coke. You can buy a ten-pound bag of ice for $2.24, about a day’s salary if you are lucky enough to make 30¢ an hour. For another $1.35, you can buy a very small, thin Styrofoam cooler to keep the ice in. The ice melts in a few hours, but meanwhile, you can have the luxury of ice cold water. You can also wet down your shirt and head. You can wear a wet washcloth around your neck. You can fill an old hair spray bottle with water and spray yourself continuously, sort of like the misters at an outdoor café. That’s pretty much it. Even the showers are scalding. Maintenance refuses to go to the ‘trouble’ of turning the hot water off in the summer. No relief there. No relief anywhere.
My friend Krissy was new to prison the summer the water and power went off. The entire yard was locked down for three days. No water, no showers, no flushing, no evaporator coolers in the 6’x11’ concrete coffin. Staff delivered inmate meals with one eight-ounce styrofoam cup of water that was gratefully gulped. Krissy tried to stay as still as possible, but she and her bunky poured sweat, constantly using their washcloths to wipe the sweat off. She said she will never forget the feeling of desperation, locked in that suffocating cell, or the rancid stink of that washcloth.
What’s the purpose of prison? Punishment is higher on the list than rehabilitation and America’s prisons are designed to punish. Many people think that inmates don’t deserve more than two or three cups of water a day and a rancid washcloth. What does that teach? It certainly doesn’t teach a person to be kind or considerate. It does, however, teach inmates that they are worthless, disposable human beings.
Before prison, I was a confident woman. Prison ate away at my confidence and I realized then just how much prison had affected me. It is a daily Chinese water torture of denigration, and if I was affected so dramatically, imagine what it does to others lacking confidence.
In the end, it boils down to humanity. Is this who we really are? Are we a nation that prefers to punish in such draconian ways? Are we really teaching people a lesson? I learned that what we are doing is treating people so badly that they become bitter, angry and mean, completely unprepared for a life of civility and respect.
I learned other things in prison. I learned that everyone wants love, but many in prison have never had it…from parents, friends or partners. Prison is full of horror stories, but the worst was about the girl on my yard whose name I never knew, and she had a nickname too awful to repeat. She had been abused by all the boys and men in her family and repeatedly raped by her father. At twelve, she became pregnant with her father’s child and at thirteen, gave birth to her son who was also her brother. She was never still, always acting out and frequently in trouble. She was desperate for love and attention, but had to idea how to get it. Of course, she was in prison. The abusive men were free.
I also learned that Jesus, Jackie De Shannon, and John Lennon were right…all we need is love. Of course, that’s simplistic and we have made it complicated. We have become a nation of fear and anger. We’d rather flex our muscles than flex our hearts. Love seems to always have conditions.
We know what we need to do, we’re just not doing it. Be kind. Be considerate. Be respectful. Stop judging and being petty. Open your hearts. Think…Is this the best person I can be? You know it’s true and you know it works…inside and out.