The Enid News and Eagle, Enid, OK

National and world

August 12, 2012

Heat affecting guards, inmates at Oklahoma prisons

OKLAHOMA CITY — The record-setting heat is taking a toll on those who work and live in prisons without air conditioning.

Correctional officers say elevated temperatures can leave prisoners with shorter fuses.

“Obviously, we are not dealing with the best people society has to offer,” said Daniel Vollmer, a correctional officer at Joseph Harp Correctional Center in Lexington. “It is no big surprise Oklahoma summers tend to put people on edge.”

Mike Rogers is a unit manager at James Crabtree Correctional Center in Helena.

“Things get a little more tense and a whole lot quicker,” he said.

Addressing issues that arise among prisoners because of the heat detracts from his regular work duties, he said.

“Staff have found themselves handling a whole lot more smaller issues that normally wouldn’t happen simply because of the heat, and being short-handed escalates problems a lot quicker than normal,” Rogers said.

Sgt. David Edelman works the midnight shift at Lexington Assessment and Reception Center.

“Well, when I go in at midnight to work, it is still in the mid-90s,” Edelman said. “It makes it to where the only thing you can think about is water. You get very lethargic. Unfortunately, when you become lethargic like that, you become complacent.”

The problem is compounded for officers working double shifts, Edelman said.

He said most offenders don’t sleep through the night because of the heat.

Edelman believes disturbances at the facility are increasing as a result.

“Everybody becomes more and more irritated,” he said. “The littlest thing can set one of the inmates off.”

Department of Corrections spokesman Jerry Massie said slightly more than half of the housing units in the system have air conditioning. No heat- related deaths have been reported.

Inmates are allowed to purchase fans, Massie said. In addition, fans are provided for indigent offenders, he said.

Staff pay special attention to those who are older than 55 or who are medically frail, Massie said.

Terry Martin is warden at the Dick Conner Correctional Center in Hominy.

The facility has put misters in shaded areas and has identified cool zones, such as an air-conditioned hallway, dining hall or visiting room where offenders can go to cool off, Martin said.

The facility also is handing out ice, Martin said.

The facility can house 960 medium-security and 236 minimum-security offenders.

Cathy Sasnett said about 18 offenders have been treated for heat-related illnesses at Jess Dunn Correctional Center, a 982-bed, minimum-security facility in Taft. A lot of those treated have other ailments that are intensified by the heat, said Sasnett, public information officer.

The elevated temperatures have also caused concern for family members who have loved ones behind bars.

Freda Pierce lives in Pontotoc County and has a brother at Joseph Harp Correctional Center. Her brother attaches wet towels to the top of his bunk and puts a fan on it to get through the night, she said.

She said most people “have no clue” about the living conditions offenders face.

“The way things are going right now, the heat is doing nothing but every summer getting hotter and hotter and hotter,” Pierce said.

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