The exterior of the Monroe Correctional Complex on Friday, June 23, 2023 in Monroe, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

The exterior of the Monroe Correctional Complex on Friday, June 23, 2023 in Monroe, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

In Monroe prison’s concrete walls, oppressive heat can be ‘unbearable’

When heat moves in, prisoners are trapped in it. Tensions go up. And air conditioning for most units isn’t in the budget.

MONROE — In the minimum security unit at the Monroe Correctional Complex, Kehaulani Walker felt as if she might pass out.

She was there last summer to visit her husband, Matthew Walker. Over the summer, she said, the heat in the visiting area was “unbearable.”

“Imagine being in a cemented-wall building with no real ventilation,” she said. “By the time that I left there, I was fully drenched in sweat.”

Kehaulani Walker left the visit early because she got dizzy. At least one other time, she said, she missed a visit altogether because of the heat in the prison.

Studies show that getting visits in prison significantly lowers recidivism after incarcerated people are released.

The heat is not just a problem in the visiting area. Like other prisons in Washington, the Monroe facility gets oppressively hot in the summer, prisoners there say. It’s an issue that has received media attention in recent years as the Pacific Northwest faced record-breaking temperatures.

At the Monroe prison, the Special Offender unit and one of four Minimum Security units have air-conditioning. Other areas with air-conditioning include offices and administration buildings.

Most of the living units, however, are not air-conditioned. Some just have fans.

Twin Rivers ‘has the most challenges’

In response to an extreme heat wave in 2021, the state Office of Corrections Ombuds recommended “increased cooling measures” at prisons in a report.

Among the recommendations: Give everyone a fan during hot weather, make ice more readily available and lower the temperature of water in the showers.

The report found the temperature of window coverings in direct sunlight at Monroe’s Twin Rivers Unit was 98 degrees. Those out of the sunlight were 87 to 90 degrees.

“It is clear to the (ombuds office) that (the Twin Rivers Unit) has the most challenges with mitigating the heat,” the prison oversight agency wrote in the report, noting this was partly because of skylights and partly because of inefficient ventilation.

In May, an Ombuds staff member “made an unannounced visit to the Twin Rivers facility to observe conditions in the living units during the record setting heat wave,” according to the agency. The staff member reportedly talked to incarcerated people “noting concerns with the adequacy of the facility’s response to the intense heat.”

As the region has gotten increasingly hot weather in recent years, the number of Seattle homes with air-conditioning went from 31% in 2013 to around 53% in 2021.

Caitlin Robertson, director of the ombuds office, said the heat issues at Monroe stem from how the facility is built.

“The state of Washington, our climate has changed,” she said, “and every single one of these facilities, if they’re going to be humane prisons … the conditions are going to need to be improved. And there’s going to need to be a huge infrastructure investment in air conditioning.”

She noted most prisons on the east side of the state have air conditioning.

‘In the heat all day’

It’s early, but this summer is already shaping up to be a hot one. A long-range forecast from the National Weather Service shows the Northwest is likely to get above average temperatures this year.

A freak heat wave hit the Northwest in May, with Everett seeing temperatures in the 80s for three days. In Monroe, the high was 90 degrees on May 14 and 15.

The state Department of Corrections has not had any complaints about the heat this year in Monroe, Kristi Webb, the prison’s spokesperson, said in an email.

Kehaulani Walker is the founder of Families of the Incarcerated, an organization that offers support for people with imprisoned loved ones. She said she brought up heat concerns in past meetings of her local family council, a group that advises Corrections.

Matthew Walker said there isn’t a way to cool down in the Monroe prison. He was incarcerated at the complex between December 2021 and March 2023 while serving an eight-year sentence for theft and burglary.

He is now at the Bishop Lewis Reentry Center in Seattle, which he said also gets warm when temperatures rise.

At Monroe, “you could see people get angry over” little things, he said. “And I figured (the heat) probably has something to do with it. Because you’re out in the heat all day.”

People should care about conditions in prison, he said, because it can trigger incarcerated people to behave in ways they normally wouldn’t.

Kehaulani Walker said the heat also affects correctional officers. She said she saw some nodding off in the visiting area because of the heat, something she noted could be a safety issue.

Matthew Walker said he lost sleep at night because the heat was so uncomfortable.

Cold showers aren’t an option. According to Corrections, the shower temperature is set at 104 degrees.

‘A tremendous amount of struggle’

Corrections has issued plans to deal with the heat for each summer since 2021.

The last one, released in May, is similar to plans from previous years. The one-page document contains measures like ice machines, misting stations, sunscreen for people in the yard and permission for people to wear shorts and T-shirts outside of units.

The plan went into effect May 12.

But the relaxed dress code isn’t always understood by corrections officers, Jacob Schmitt said. He is incarcerated in the Twin Rivers Unit, serving a 30-year sentence for theft and burglary.

“There was a tremendous amount of struggle” over the clothing policy this year, he said.

Schmitt remembered at one point in May’s heat wave, a staff member “was standing on the walkway screaming and ordering people back to the unit if they were wearing shorts.”

Christopher Havens, also incarcerated in the Twin Rivers Unit, remembered confusion about the rules. He said a department memo allowed people to wear shorts on a certain date.

“So everybody started wearing shorts,” he said, but when they got to the cafeteria, officers told them they were breaking the rules.

“The following day,” Havens said, “a new (memo) was up with a different date.”

Havens said he wears long pants instead of shorts outside the unit to avoid problems.

Webb said that memos were sent to staff members and incarcerated people about heat mitigation efforts.

Havens is serving a 25-year sentence for murder. He’s also a published mathematician and co-founder of a nonprofit to help other prisoners study math. He began his studies behind bars. But when the sun hits his window during certain hours on summer evenings, his research becomes impossible, he said.

“It just doesn’t work,” he said. “Every time I move my arm, a paper’s sticking to it.”

These days, he spends hot evenings socializing outside his room. He doesn’t bother trying to study.

‘What happens if my fan breaks?’

Many prisoners don’t have fans, Schmitt said.

Though he has the “luxury” to purchase a new one, he asked, “what happens if my fan breaks?”

Incarcerated people are only allowed to place one order per month for most non-consumable items, like fans. A request for a new fan to replace a broken one could take weeks.

The catalog used by prisoners lists two fans for sale. The smaller one costs $28.95, while the larger is $33.95. Incarcerated people can make between 42 cents an hour to $1.70 an hour while working in prison, said Webb, the prison spokesperson.

During the 2021 heat wave, Schmitt saw a custody officer confiscate a fan from a prisoner as punishment.

Beyond the clothing rules, Schmitt said, other cooling efforts play out differently in practice than in theory. One example is the ice machines.

“At least one machine breaks every year,” he said, “which means that then a unit has to go ask another unit for ice” or go to common areas to get some.

The ice runs out, Schmitt said.

In an email, Webb said the ice machines in the Twin Rivers Unit don’t break frequently. And if there is a breakdown, she wrote, ice is available elsewhere.

“We are currently working on a new walk-in freezer to store an emergency supply of ice,” Webb said.

‘Everything else is just a Band-Aid’

As for broader changes, Webb noted the department asked the governor for funding “to add cooling capabilities” to three prisons in the latest state budget session.

Those prisons were the Washington Corrections Center in Shelton, the Washington Corrections Center for Women in Gig Harbor and the Monroe Correctional Complex.

“The request was not funded,” Webb said, “so it is our intent to resubmit the same or similar request for the 2025-2027 legislative budget cycle.”

For Robertson, the director of the ombuds office, getting the funding for air conditioning is essential.

“Everything else,” she said, “is just a Band-Aid.”

Sophia Gates: 425-339-3035; sophia.gates@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @SophiaSGates.

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