‘Like an oven’: death at US women’s prison amid heatwave sparks cries for help

<span>The Central California Women's Facility in Chowchilla in 2008.</span><span>Photograph: Tomas Ovalle/Fresno Bee via Getty Images</span>
The Central California Women's Facility in Chowchilla in 2008.Photograph: Tomas Ovalle/Fresno Bee via Getty Images

An incarcerated person at California’s largest women’s prison has died amid a brutal heatwave that has left residents without air conditioning begging for relief and warning of dire consequences for their health.

A woman in the Central California Women’s Facility, located in the Central Valley city of Chowchilla, died on Saturday as temperatures in the region climbed above 110F (43.3C). The California Coalition for Women Prisoners (CCWP), an advocacy group, said it appeared the woman suffered a preventable heat death. The woman’s daughter told the Sacramento Bee that her mother had complained about the physical toll of the summer weather for years.

Mary Xjimenez, a spokesperson for the state corrections department, said in an email that the woman was transported to a medical facility on Thursday and died on Saturday and that the “death appears to be the result of an ongoing medical condition and not heat related, but will be determined by the coroner’s office”. Tyson Pogue, the local sheriff-coroner, said it was too soon to say whether the death was due to heat and his office would conduct an autopsy.

News of the deaths comes as more than 146 million Americans were under extreme heat alerts across the nation, leaving people incarcerated in aging prison facilities without air conditioning particularly vulnerable. There have been reports of potentially fatal conditions inside jails and prisons during heatwaves across California and in Nevada, Illinois, Texas, Florida and other states this year.

The Chowchilla fatality has escalated fear and panic throughout the prison, advocates and incarcerated residents said. The cells in the overcrowded facility, which incarcerates more than 2,000 people, lack air conditioning, and residents said officials have failed to provide enough cold water and other supplies that would alleviate their suffering and reduce heatstroke risks.

“Please help us, they’re not doing anything for us,” Trancita Ponce, a Chowchilla resident, said in a statement shared by CCWP. “There is hot air blowing inside of our rooms, I have a huge migraine and I feel sick and other girls are throwing up.”

Another CCWF resident, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation, told the Guardian she’s been struggling with nausea and headaches, and that she had a thermometer in her area that recently showed it was 103F (39.4C). After residents’ complaints, the facility gave out ice water on Tuesday, but residents were only given two cups each, she said: “I’ve seen people passing out. This is inhumane … You feel like you’re dirt, like you’re nothing. If we were animals, they’d be treating us better.”

Elizabeth Nomura, state membership organizer for CCWP, who has been in contact with Chowchilla residents, said the facility has swamp coolers meant to lower temperatures in the cells, but that they weren’t working properly – an issue documented by the Modesto Bee during extreme heat last year.

“My friend said: ‘Help us, we can’t breathe,’” said Nomura, who was previously incarcerated at Chowchilla. “I’ve had heatstroke before [while incarcerated] and I know what it feels like to be so dehydrated that you can’t see. They are sitting in a room, toasting in what feels like an oven. They’re all suffering.”

Nomura said the death in the institution created a “dark cloud” for residents: “It brings that harsh reality forward for so many – that they could very well die in prison. Everyone in there is frantic, locked in these death chambers. It’s nothing short of cruel.”

Xjimenez said each state prison has a “heat plan coordinator” who monitors conditions and temperatures, and that housing units have some form of “cooling relief”, typically evaporative coolers and fans. During extreme heat, prisons will sometimes provide additional access to air-conditioned areas and increased access to water and ice, she said, and when temperatures exceed 90F (32.2C), some vulnerable residents are moved to air-conditioned rooms.

At Chowchilla, staff is providing ice water to all residents and “industrial floor fans” are cooling the housing units, she said.

“The California department of corrections and rehabilitation is closely monitoring the current heat wave and is coordinating with our state partners and the leadership in each of the state’s 32 prisons to ensure there are appropriate resources and response,” she said in a statement. “We are paying special attention to medically vulnerable incarcerated people, and will be providing additional water, ice, cooling areas, and information to our staff and incarcerated population on ways to prevent heat-related illnesses throughout this heat wave.”