As record cold and snow expands across the state, some Oklahoma prisoners say they’re freezing inside their housing unit.
Cynthia Schmitt’s son, a 26-year-old housed at the Lexington Assessment and Reception Center, has complained about cold temperatures for the past week. Because he’s a new inmate, Schmitt said her son hasn’t been able to purchase warmer clothing from the prison commissary and is relying on state-issued blankets to keep warm.
“Every night I go to bed, warm and comfortable, and I think about my child in there,” she said.
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Corrections department spokesman Justin Wolf said Lexington Assessment and Reception staff distributed extra blankets to inmates last Tuesday and Wednesday. A power outage on Friday night briefly caused the facility’s heat to go out, but as of Monday afternoon Wolf said all of Lexington’s housing units were at a safe temperature.
Four state prisons — Lexington A&R, Dick Conner Correctional Center, Lexington Correctional Center and the Oklahoma State Penitentiary — have experienced heating system issues over the past week. Wolf said each facility has developed an emergency plan to move inmates if indoor temperatures drop too low, and have distributed portable heaters, extra blankets and warm clothing.
Dick Conner, a medium-security prison in Hominy, lost all heat for a brief period over the weekend. During the outage, Wolf said prison staff never recorded an interior temperature below 60 degrees.
“We’re facing the same challenges as the whole state,” Wolf said. “We’re addressing them and ensuring all inmates are safe and warm.”
Stacy Davis’ husband is incarcerated at Dick Conner. She said heat often fails to reach his dorm bed, which is located on the second floor right next to a window. To keep warm, Davis says her husband will walk to interior areas of the housing unit during the day and return to his bed at night.
“He’s wearing two sweatshirts, his oranges, a towel over his head with a beanie, his jacket,” she said. “Just layers and layers of clothes.”
Sub-freezing temperatures are forecast statewide through Friday, according to the National Weather Service. A winter storm is expected to drop 2-8 inches of snow throughout most of the state late Tuesday and Wednesday.
The prolonged cold temperatures and winter weather have strained electric and natural gas providers. On Tuesday morning, OG&E began rolling blackouts across the state as grid operators struggle with demand. At 9 a.m. on Tuesday, 125,000 customers statewide were without power.
Schmitt said she understands if a facility loses power or heat because of winter weather, but wants staff to work quickly and diligently to make sure inmates aren’t too cold.
“Regardless of their crime, they’re human beings and deserve to be treated with some kind of dignity,” she said.
Keaton Ross is a Report for America corps member who covers prison conditions and criminal justice issues for Oklahoma Watch. Contact him at (405) 831-9753 or Kross@Oklahomawatch.org. Follow him on Twitter at @_KeatonRoss
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