Voices From the Sweltering Inside

The recent protests at the St Louis Workhouse jail serve as a brutal reminder that American prisons are oppressive hellholes.

Inmates at the Workhouse jail in St Louis. Carolina Hidalgo / St Louis Public Radio

“Help us!” came the cries from inside St Louis’s notorious “workhouse” jail last Tuesday night. Men and women locked up there had apparently been begging for assistance for days, but on this night, their pleas happened to be heard by someone on the outside, who posted a video of the disturbing scene on Facebook.

The footage soon went viral and by Friday night, protesters had surrounded the jail, demanding the facility be closed because the nearly 850 people inside were suffering from the week’s brutal heat wave. With temperatures topping 100 degrees outside, those awaiting trial in their airless cells were enduring an unimaginable 115 degrees.

Authorities pepper-sprayed the protesters, and eventually arrested several. But they returned the next night. And their persistence worked. By Monday morning five industrial-sized air-conditioning units had been ordered, bringing the temperature inside the facility down to a much more humane 78 degrees.

What happened this week serves as a reminder that America’s jails and prisons are absolute hellholes where human rights violations occur on a regular basis.

It is the men and the women who endure these abuses who force the nation to confront just how inhumanely it treats those it confines. And it is those of us on the outside that must stand in solidarity with them, and insist they be treated as people.

The St Louis Workhouse

The St Louis Workhouse, officially called the “Medium Security Institution,” is a particularly grim place.

The facility’s nickname dates back to the nineteenth century, when, in 1843, city officials insisted that prisoners toil in the nearby quarries. The way it operates today is equally bleak. Although the present facility wasn’t constructed until 1966, the St Louis Workhouse carries on the Dickensian tradition, treating anyone locked up there as less than human.

The prisoners — who, again, have not even been convicted of a crime — are kept in quarters filled with black mold and infested with cockroaches and rats, skittering in and out of their cells. As if that wasn’t bad enough, the facility is also known for its physical abuses. In 2012, according to local prisoner rights activists, the Workhouse was cited in a civil suit alleging that guards forced detainees to fight one another for sport, and in 2013 the Justice Department found the institution’s rates of sexual assault were well above those of most other jails.

And then there’s the heat. Although the Workhouse sits near the Mississippi River, on the north side of a city where summer temperatures routinely hover around 90 degrees, it has no air conditioning.

Oppressive Heat and Its Consequences

When St Louis mayor Lyda Krewson found herself embroiled in a PR crisis this past week, she couldn’t have been surprised that local jails were blisteringly hot — or that exposing people to such extreme heat is potentially fatal. Indeed, it is regular policy in St Louis and other places to open public “cooling centers” whenever the heat index rises to dangerous levels. They know the lethality of heat.

Consider, for instance, just a few of the heat-induced deaths that have occurred around the country over the last decade. Back in 2006, headlines decried the heat-related death of twenty-one-year-old Michigan prisoner Timothy Souders. Guards had shackled Souders to a cement slab in a swelteringly hot solitary confinement cell and left him there. He eventually collapsed and died. Even though surveillance cameras made it clear Souders was in severe distress, guards did nothing cool the young man down.

And then there was the 2009 death of an Arkansas prisoner named Marcia Powell. According to one report, Powell was placed in an “unroofed, wire-fenced holding cell while awaiting transfer to another part of the prison,” where she went into a coma, and eventually died, from a heat stroke.

So bad has the heat stroke problem been in Texas prisons that in 2011 alone, a dozen men died from the extreme heat. In a civil suit filed thereafter, a federal judge issued a scathing eighty-three-page opinion outlining the horrific conditions. In one instance, a prisoner named Larry Gene McCollum sat awaiting trial in a facility whose heat index reached nearly 130 degrees. When he died, McCollum’s body temperature was 109 degrees.

The climate control problem in America’s correctional facilities is so severe — whether it’s Florida or New York or California — that Obama’s Justice Department sided with, in an amicus brief, inmates claiming that extreme heat constituted “cruel and unusual punishment.”

The problem is, corrections officials pay little attention to what courts decide or the Bill of Rights demands when it comes to treating the men and women in their charge.

And so time and again the people on the inside are heard only when they cry out for help directly, loudly and publicly. And their conditions are improved only when we on the outside hear those cries and stand with them.

In 2010, for example, it wasn’t until several dozen prisoners confined in oppressively hot, windowless cells in New Hampshire began a hunger strike that anyone took notice of their suffering. Already they had resorted to flooding their cells with a few inches of toilet water simply to get some relief from the heat. But it was only when the men stood together, refusing sustenance, that officials finally agreed to put some fans in the unit where they were held.

Lessons From St Louis

Way back in 1990, a St Louis district court judge ordered authorities to improve the conditions of those locked in the Workhouse — starting with not jamming untold numbers of people into a cramped, hellish place simply because they were too poor to afford bail.

But corrections officials didn’t listen. By 2009, the ACLU of Eastern Missouri was forced to issue a new report — this one indicating that not only had the facility become severely overcrowded, it remained “squalid” and abuses there were appallingly routine. Still nothing happened.

Last week, the men and women awaiting trial at the St Louis Workhouse were finally heard. Why? Because they spoke up for themselves and other ordinary people rallied with them. Today these pre-trail detainees are no longer sitting in ovens. And a number of nonprofits are mobilizing to raise bail to get some of them home.

But this is no time for celebration. Across the country this summer, men and women are still barely breathing through the oppressive heat in their cells. The solution? According to a spokesman from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, prisoners “are encouraged to refrain from strenuous activity . . . [and] are given extra fluids, ice and are encouraged to take more and longer showers to cool off and prevent heat stress.”

As the men and women from St Louis have made clear, that’s not good enough. Not by a long shot.