Two years ago, Corene Kendrick visited the Arizona State Prison complex in Florence. An attorney with the Berkeley-based Prison Law Office, she's tasked with monitoring conditions inside Arizona prisons as part of the settlement deal arising from a landmark civil rights lawsuit.
Though touring prisons across the country is a regular feature of her job, she was floored by what she saw in Florence. Several hundred prisoners were being held in windowless canvas tents that had been covered in white paint, creating a suffocating atmosphere.
"It felt as if you were living inside a raincoat," she recalls.
The tents were outfitted with swamp coolers, but still were oppressively hot in the summer weather, especially with 20 individuals packed into one tent. Inmates complained that insects and vermin frequently crawled in.
"The night before we came, there had been a monsoon, so you could see watermarks [inside the tents] about six or eight inches above the ground," Kendrick says. "The prisoners told us that every time there was a monsoon, the tents would flood."
It's not clear whether conditions have improved since her 2015 visit. The Arizona Department of Corrections confirmed that the outdoor tents are still in use, but withheld other specifics, including the number of prisoners housed there.
Kendrick describes the visit as "really horrifying."
"It was one of the most disturbing things I’ve ever seen inside a prison, and I’ve been doing this for a while. I’ve never been to refugee camps in Africa, but I imagine this is what it’s like."
Of particular concern to her was the fact that an inmate with serious mental illnesses was being housed in one of the tents.
"He told me that he did not feel well because of the heat and his medication," she wrote in a letter to the Arizona Department of Corrections' lawyers. "I saw him lying on his bed, rolling around, speaking to himself, crying and moaning. The tent was already stifling hot, even though it was the morning."
Mentally ill people face a higher risk of heat-related health problems, for a number of reasons.
In some cases, impaired cognitive functioning can lead people with mental illnesses to avoid taking common-sense precautions, like drinking water and staying out of the sun.
Additionally, some symptoms of heat-related illnesses — such as irritability, anxiety, and confusion — also are symptoms of a number of mental illnesses, which means it's easy for heatstroke and heat exhaustion to not get treated because they haven't been diagnosed.
Perhaps most significantly, psychotropic medications including anti-psychotics and antidepressants are known to limit the body's ability to regulate temperature. As a result, the Arizona Department of Corrections is required by law to move inmates who are on what are colloquially called "heat meds" to an area where the temperature is under 85 degrees if they have an adverse reaction to the heat.
With summer fully under way and Central Arizona placed under an excessive heat warning by the National Weather Service, Kendrick is concerned about the safety of the inmates living in the outdoor tents.
"This isn't an abstract concern," she says. "ADC has had a prisoner quite publicly die from heatstroke — a woman who was on psychotropic medication."
That prisoner was Marcia Powell, who in 2009 spent four hours locked in a human cage at Goodyear's Perryville Prison on a day when temperatures reached 107 degrees. Powell, who had been serving a 27-month sentence for prostitution, had been diagnosed with schizophrenia and later tested positive for anti-psychotic and mood-stabilizing drugs.
After Powell's death, the ADC retrofitted the outdoor cages to provide shade, misters, and water stations. But it's unclear whether other precautions have been taken — such a putting a limit on how long an inmate can be left in a cage, or discontinuing their use during extreme heat.
In response to inquiries from Phoenix New Times, spokesman Bill Lamoreaux wrote in an email that the Arizona Department of Corrections "is aware of and prepared for excessive heat situations, which occur nearly every summer."
"All facilities have either air-conditioning or evaporative coolers in the housing areas, including the tents in North Unit," he added.
"Inmates are encouraged to drink plenty of fluids and avoid unnecessary or extended exposure to the sun. All heat-related issues are addressed immediately by security and medical staff. Inmates on psychotropic medications are monitored for heat-related complications and appropriate accommodations as reasonable and necessary are considered on an individual basis given the prevailing facts at the time."
Lamoreaux did not respond to questions about how many inmates currently are in the tents, which can hold up to 400 prisoners, according to a 2016 audit, and how many inmates are taking psychotropic medications.
He also did not address whether Arizona has a formal "heat plan" in place.
In California, the Department of Corrections has a written policy specifying that prisoners on psychotropic medications must be moved indoors when the temperature exceeds 90 degrees. When the temperature indoors reaches 90 degrees, those inmates must be provided with a way to cool off, such as showers, ice, or cold water. Additionally, when indoor temperatures go above 95 degrees, medical staff are required to make rounds to check on the health of prisoners who are taking psychotropic drugs.
It's unclear whether Arizona has similar guidelines — or any at all.
Extreme heat also poses a workplace safety hazard for correctional officers (COs) whose duties require them to spend time outdoors.
"Perhaps ironically, COs enjoy significantly less legal protection than inmates do against being forced to endure heat conditions that threaten their health," a 2015 report from Columbia Law School notes. "From a legal standpoint, COs are simply state employees like any other. Their employers owe them no special duty of care beyond those owed to all employees."
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
Inmates, on the other hand, are protected by the Eighth Amendment, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment. Previous court rulings in Louisiana and Mississippi have concluded that exposure to extreme heat falls into that category.
So you might reasonably wonder: How is it legal for Arizona to house inmates in stifling tents in a heat wave, while government officials are warning everyone else to stay indoors?
Kendrick has an answer to that: "Arguably, it's not legal."