Iowa inmates endure summer heat as lawmakers put off prison repairs

An image of the kitchen at the Clarinda correctional facility. Lawmakers did not provide $4 million the Iowa Department of Corrections requested to upgrade the space, (Photo by Iowa Department of Corrections)

Inmates in some of Iowa’s aging correctional facilities are sweating out the peak summertime heat without air conditioning as the Legislature continues to put off funding major infrastructure projects requested by the state Department of Corrections.

Two of Iowa’s nine correctional facilities need of air conditioning upgrades — the Mount Pleasant Correctional Facility and the Anamosa State Penitentiary, said Cord Overton, spokesperson for the DOC. 

Upgrading air conditioning in the state’s prisons is just a small portion of the long list of major infrastructure requests by the DOC. Hot water system upgrades, roof replacements and tunnel replacements are also on the list.

The majority of the Mount Pleasant facility, which houses 805 inmates, does not have air conditioning.

At Anamosa, which houses 973 inmates, only half of the housing units received air conditioning upgrades in 1980, leaving three housing units without air, Overton said.

As the Midwest endures increasing summer temperatures, Central Iowa Democratic Socialists of America and Twin Cities Democratic Socialists of America have launched phone banks to demand the Mount Pleasant Correctional Facility and the DOC provide all inmates equitable access to air conditioning amid the high heat.

Beyond Mount Pleasant and Anamosa, Overton said the kitchen at the Clarinda Correctional Facility is also not air-conditioned and is a top project for the DOC. About 900 meals are prepared three times a day in the retired mental health institution, Overton said.

Gyms and greenhouses in several facilities are also not air-conditioned.

At Mount Pleasant, staff and inmates have had to “adapt to the hot and humid days,” Overton said, since the DOC took over the facility from the Iowa Department of Human Services and turned it into a prison.

“By leaving windows and doorways open around the dormitory areas of the facility, providing ice machines on all units, along with fans located in many areas, it helps mitigate the heat on particularly hot and humid Iowa summer days,” Overton said in an email. “But there is no getting away from the fact that it can be unpleasant.”

Inmates are allowed to use “cool off” areas during different times of the day, including staying in the dining hall, library and chapel, which are all air conditioned. At Anamosa, common areas have air conditioning, including visiting and health services. The prison’s staff offices also have air conditioning, Overton said. 

But efforts to provide needed air conditioning repairs and upgrades have long been put off by Iowa lawmakers. 

Since 2012, the DOC has requested funds to upgrade the Mount Pleasant facility’s air conditioning system, Overton said.

This legislative session, the DOC requested $3.5 million for the Mount Pleasant project to the Transportation Infrastructure Committee. The department also requested $4 million for the Clarinda kitchen.

The total major maintenance funding request for this year was about $87 million. Last year, the DOC received $860,000 in routine maintenance funding for the facilities.

However, due to budget cuts amid COVID-19, funding for requested projects like the Clarinda kitchen did not make it into the state’s final budget, Overton said. The Iowa Legislature did approve $500,000 for a technology reinvestment fund that automates the correctional facilities’ heating, cooling, fire alarms, freezers and coolers.

“Regarding those advocating for adding additional air conditioning to parts of our facilities that do not yet have it, I think we all agree these would be helpful improvements to increase the quality of life for both our staff and incarcerated people,” Overton said. “Several of our facilities are only partially air conditioned, and almost all of our facilities have maintenance or capital improvement needs to be addressed.”

Linh Ta
Reporter Linh Ta comes to Iowa Capital Dispatch from the Des Moines Register, where she covered trending news, public safety and the suburbs. Most recently, she has covered retail business and followed both national and local trends to provide insight about the issues that matter the most to Iowans. Beyond traditional journalism, Ta has worked as a speech coach with the Des Moines Storytellers Project with the goal of sharing the diverse perspectives of Iowans from all walks of life. She is the 2019 winner of the Young Iowa Journalist Award and the winner of an Iowa Broadcast News Award. Email her at [email protected] or follow her on Twitter @linhmaita.