It’s been a rough summer for residents of the state’s 18 prisons that lack air conditioning. Inmates say temperatures inside often exceed 100 degrees, and last week those housed at the Buckingham Correctional Center had a new complaint.
Thirty-seven years ago, Virginia opened a prison in Buckingham County – a place designed to hold 640 men, but today the population is nearly double, and without air conditioning residents say the building is like an oven.
“This concrete heats up," says an inmate we'll call Dex. (He asked to remain anonymous.) "It stays hot pretty much until fall. It doesn’t cool down.”
Dex has been locked up for twenty years and has at least five more to go.
“I caught my wife in bed with another man, and we got into a fist fight," he explains. "He broke a little bone underneath his eyebrow. It severed an artery in his brain and he died.”
Dex works in maintenance at Buckingham, as did another inmate back in 2016. Both told us some exhaust fans designed to circulate air through the prison were broken.
“All of the equipment with the rare exception is all original, so it’s well over 30 years old. What makes it particularly difficult is that some of those companies are no longer in business, and the parts are rather difficult to get, so we do our best to try to keep the machinery running, and it just proves more and more difficult with each passing year.”
And Dex says smaller fans purchased by inmates are largely ineffective at keeping prisoners cool.
“Once the temperature in the cell reaches 100 degrees, you’re just blowing hot air on yourself. It’d be like holding a hair dryer to your face to cool you off.”
During a heat wave in July, the department of corrections said it did everything it could to keep men comfortable – that ice, for example, was available. Not so according to Dex.
“We have an ice machine in the pod, and as long as the temperature stays at an okay level it will produce ice, but once the temperature is 95 or better in the pod, it can’t keep up. It melts faster than it can create new ice.”
The state also claimed it tried to keep prisoners hydrated.
“I saw on the news where they were giving us water bottled water. I’ve never seen that.”
What he did see was an older inmate, recently transferred from another prison. His name was Walt Isenhour.
“He had come from Sussex, which is an air conditioned prison, and at those air conditioned prisons you can’t buy fans, so when you get transferred to a place that doesn’t have air conditioning, you have to wait at least a month before you have the opportunity to get a fan, and he was in that waiting period.”
On July 15, Isenhour reported feeling ill, returned to his cell and died. The medical examiner says he suffered a heart attack.
Governor Ralph Northam seemed sympathetic and indicated Virginia might be prepared to provide air conditioning to prisons that didn’t have it.
“Obviously we want to do everything we can to be humane. There are a number, unfortunately, a number of prisons that don’t have air conditioning. We did everything we could during that heat wave to be safe, to make it as comfortable as possible, but we have a lot of work to do, and certainly that’s something we’ll need to address in the upcoming budget.”
Meanwhile, the prison is coping with one more misery. Last weekend the state closed Buckingham to visitors, put inmates on lockdown and placed some of their possessions in quarantine for seven days as part of an effort to rid the prison of scabies – a tiny burrowing mite that gets under the skin and causes intense itching. Officials said they had treated several cases and were sending all clothing to another facility to be cleaned by industrial, hospital-grade washers.