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Prisons fanning the flames of injustice

I received an unusual letter from Arizona recently. It was written by an inmate held at the Lewis prison complex in Buckeye, Ariz., and signed by 39 other prisoners. Their complaint? That life inside the Buckley unit there is like living in hell.

This summer’s record-breaking heat there has them “baking in their cells,” according to inmate Robert Navarro. He says the temperature inside his corner cell – where the relentless sun beats down on his walls all day – was recently recorded as high as 112 degrees. No windows, no fans, no ice or chilled water, no relief. Day after sweltering day.

Regular readers of this column know I’m no bleeding heart, but we wouldn’t allow a dog to be subjected to conditions like that. So why, in locations where triple-digit heat is the norm, are prison officials allowed to house inmates in such life-threatening environments?

“I didn’t realize it was OK for our nation to treat our incarcerated people inhumanely,” Navarro wrote me. “Especially when they make such a big deal about prisoners’ treatment in Cuba and other cruel countries.”

Navarro, who is serving 25 to life for aggravated assault, gave me permission to use his name knowing harsh disciplinary steps might be taken against him for speaking out. Space does not permit publication of the more than three dozen other inmates who signed the heat complaint letter.

“We get to take a shower once in a while to cool off (then) its right back to the oven,” Navarro explained. “It’s equivalent to opening the oven to rotate the turkey.”

By the way, the temperature in Buckeye, Ariz., for August is forecast to be well over 100 degrees every day but one.

Naturally, the guards cannot leave cell doors open for air circulation. But, according to inmates, if officials would remove the bottom door plates (which are there to stop the passing of contraband) they might get a little relief. Apparently, that request has been denied. More importantly, hot inmates’ requests for a daily delivery of a bag of ice has also been refused.

“Our cell water is always hot,” Navarro says. “We’ve asked for a bucket of ice to cool off our core temps but the answer is no.”

Prisoners’ loved ones who have complained were told by the Corrections Department’s liaison office that “Inmates may order drinks through their commissary orders, as well as ice, if they so choose to. They may also purchase fans.”

But here’s the dirty little secret: The prison commissary at Lewis/Buckley is open only one day a week, according to inmates. As a girlfriend of one told me, “I suppose he could buy seven bags of ice on that one day, but they would melt within a few hours. What good is that?”

The Arizona Department of Corrections ignored my required written list of questions about the heat issue. But I got ahold of a message sent to worried family members from Deputy Warden James Roan. He said they are trying to combat the heat by checking swamp coolers on a regular basis, “but with this heat and humidity they are only so effective.”

The Lewis complex, situated 40 miles outside Phoenix, has had its share of violence in the past. A riot and 15-day hostage situation in 2004, and two grisly inmate murders in 2010 and earlier this year. There have been complaints by high-ranking employees about dangerously low staffing levels. It is chilling to think that inmates might stage another uprising so they can be sent to lock down, where they believe it is air-conditioned.

Someone in the Arizona Department of Corrections should be taking urgent steps to defuse this situation. Something more than simply waiting for cooler temperatures to arrive.

Look, the Arizona prison system isn’t the only one with this inhumane hot-box-like situation. Countless inmates across the country are held in sweltering conditions. For example, a recent civil suit in Texas revealed 22 inmates have died of heat exhaustion there since 1998, and still most prisons in Texas don’t have air-conditioning.

Even though judges from Mississippi to Wisconsin and states in between have ruled that housing prisoners in too hot or too cold conditions is inhumane and unconstitutional, still it continues. Budgetary issues are most frequently mentioned as the culprit.

Correction officials like to remind civilians that their staff also endures the heat inside the prison. But guards can grab a cold drink, step into a cooled office for a break, and they get to escape to their air-conditioned cars and homes after their shift. For the prisoners, the constant heat is unrelenting.

Some will say they shouldn’t do the crime if they can’t do the time. But it has never been the American way to treat our own people worse than we would treat an animal. Inmate Navarro is right. We would be quick to condemn these conditions in any other country. Why is it OK here?; email to