Incarcerated Refuse to Return to Cells in Act of ‘Self-Preservation’ as Heat Bakes 100+ Year-Old Prison Where Walls ‘Sweat’

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By The Vanguard

STILLWATER, MN – In what one former inmate at a Minnesota prison here called an act of “self-preservation” amid dangerously high temperatures in the region, about 100 incarcerated in one housing unit refused to return to their cells Sunday. 

The situation “resolved without incident” a Department of Corrections spokesperson said in a statement, according to the Associated Press, and added “incarcerated individuals in the unit indicated dissatisfaction” because the understaffed facility had to limit inmates’ time out of their cells.

However, the dispute appeared to be much more than the state let on, according to prison advocates.

Those “advocates positioned outside of the Stillwater prison, some of whom have family members inside, said inmates are fed up with the excessive heat, lack of air conditioning and limited access to showers and ice during on and off lockdowns over the past two months,” wrote the AP.

The prison is about 25 miles (40 kilometers) east of Minneapolis, which was under an afternoon heat advisory for temperatures approaching 100 degrees Fahrenheit (37.7 Celsius). 

“My organization got calls from inmates who are actually inside” starting at 6:30 a.m., said Marvina Haynes of Minnesota Wrongfully Convicted Judicial Reform, whose brother is an inmate at Stillwater, reported AP.

“This morning, they decided that they weren’t going to lock into their cells,” said David Boehnke of Twin Cities Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee.

The AP said the state “confirmed that inmates have been in lockdown status because of the holiday weekend, meaning they are kept in their cells,” with “limited access facility-wide to out-of-cell time for showers, phone use and recreation.”  

The union representing Stillwater’s correctional officer said in a statement the incident is “endemic and highlights the truth behind the operations of the MN Department of Corrections with chronic understaffing,” blaming the incident on “not enough security staff to protect the facility.”

But, advocates Haynes, Boehnke and Cathy Stroud Caldwell said the inmate action was an “impromptu response to unsafe conditions, including access to clean drinking water, which they say is reportedly brown in color.” The department denied that, said AP.

“They didn’t have time to organize and plan,” Haynes said. “It was just … we’re not going back to that hot cell with no drinking water and not being able to shower,” adding they hope to meet with officials “to talk about the conditions that inmates are living in” and “solutions for the future.”

Intense heat waves across the country have led to amplified concern for prison populations, especially those in poorly ventilated or air-conditioned facilities, wrote the AP, noting about 1,200 inmates are at the facility just southeast of Stillwater in Bayport, according to department records. It was built in 1914.

Kevin Reese, founder of a criminal justice organization, Until We Are All Free, described Stillwater as a “pizza oven” in the summers, said AP. 

Reese added he was incarcerated there during the summers from 2006 through 2009, describing the prison to AP as a “100-year-old building with no air conditioning, no central air,” Reese said. “The walls actually sweat.”

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