'Pretty miserable': Prison staff, inmates swelter in Minnesota facilities without air conditioning

Stone sign outside Stillwater prison.
Guard towers and fencing surrounds the Stillwater Correctional Facility.
John Minchillo | AP

As temperatures rose into the 90s across Minnesota this week and parts of the southern United States endured their third week of temperatures above 100, focus rightfully shifted to the needs of outdoor workers.

But what about those stuck inside — confined to one of Minnesota's nine prisons that don't have facility-wide air conditioning?

A Department of Corrections spokesperson said staff and residents got reminders to stay hydrated and limit activity. Some units got jugs of ice water. And nurses were on high alert, making rounds to ensure residents were in good health, with a close eye on those with preexisting conditions.

But as Zeke Caligiuri illustrates in his short story, “There Will Be Seeds For Next Year,” little more can be done than wait when the heat settles into a 109-year-old stone building.

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“The old walls were sweating under the heat. Guys started fights with each other just to go to the AC in segregation, until the AC broke and they were stuck in the death chambers back there. People sat on their steel toilets and flushed them over and over to stay cool.”

The fictional story included in the book “Prison Noir” edited by Joyce Carol Oates was inspired by Caligiuri’s time at the prison in Stillwater. He told All Things Considered host Tom Crann that tensions would rise with the temperatures.

“The same way in cities when it gets particularly hot [and] it seems there’s more violence, I think here, in the greater sense, it comes down to the way you treat human beings,” Caligiuri said. “If human beings on a regular basis don’t feel like their human needs are taken care of and then something else comes in and agitates that, you will get tension.”

But the problem goes beyond fighting. Last month in Texas, nine inmates in their 30s died during heatwaves, and justice-involved people are now filing civil rights lawsuits over a lack of air conditioning in some facilities.

Caligiuri and The Marshall Project reporter Cary Aspinwall joined All Things Considered Thursday to talk about the issue of excessive heat in prisons. Click play on the audio player above to hear the conversation.