Prison officials seek relief for overheated inmates

jsowell@idahostatesman.comJuly 2, 2013 

Editor's note: This story originally incorrectly referred to the South Idaho Correctional Institution.

As the temperature reached 100 degrees for the fifth straight day Tuesday, inmates in one wing of the Idaho State Correctional Institution have found conditions almost intolerable as a lone swamp cooler has proved ineffective.

Officials at the medium-security prison planned to bring in blocks of ice and a portable swamp cooler to supplement the other one. They will also buy 17 fans to increase the flow of air inside a former warehouse that previously served as the prison's upholstery shop. Authorities are also distributing ice to prisoners, a practice that is followed throughout Idaho's prison system when the weather is hot.

"It's hot. It's hot everywhere," said Jeff Ray, spokesman for the Idaho Department of Correction. "Our objective is to maximize the cooling in that unit."

Swamp coolers cool through the evaporation of water, which circulates through the unit. Internal fans blow cool air into the hot room.

The problem with swamp coolers is that they're only able to reduce the temperature by 15 to 20 degrees, which is of limited use when the temperature reaches 100 degrees or higher, Ray said.

Ray did not know what the temperature was inside Unit 24, where the problem occurred. He had not been at the prison and was relying on information from an assistant warden, he said.

Unit 24 was converted into a housing unit in late 2008, after 300 Idaho inmates incarcerated in Texas were returned to Idaho. Officials with the Department of Correction were concerned about staffing shortages at the private Texas prison and the costs of housing the prisoners out of state.

There are currently 177 male inmates assigned to Unit 24, Ray said. Of those, 102 are classified with a medium-security designation or lower. The rest are inmates given a retained jurisdiction sentence that can allow them to be released within six months if they satisfactorily follow program requirements and a judge agrees to an early release.

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