The West

It’s 100 degrees in California, and the air conditioning finally works at this prison

The federal prison in Mendota, California opened in 2012.
The federal prison in Mendota, California opened in 2012. The Fresno Bee

The warden at a federal prison in California’s San Joaquin Valley with a notoriously faulty air conditioning system insists in a letter to Sen. Kamala Harris that he has fixed that problem, although he says he can’t do much about other challenges he faces in hiring more officers.

Warden Scott Young at Federal Correctional Institution, Mendota released the letter after a visit from congressional staff earlier this summer. Harris had requested his response from the Bureau of Prisons on certain maintenance and staffing issues after her representatives .

“As always, I stand committed to operating a safe, humane, secure, and orderly institution,” Young wrote, encouraging Harris to contact him directly with any additional concerns.

He oversees a prison in the San Joaquin Valley that regularly records triple-digit temperatures in July and August. It’s had a faulty air conditioning system for three years, which prison union leaders say poses a health and safety risk for inmates and staff.

The prison also is understaffed. Young wrote to Harris that the prison has 81 vacancies out of an authorized staff of 305 position. He wrote they had a veteran’s hiring event in July to recruit more potential employees, where 20 people met the hiring criteria.

Aaron McGlothin, head of the prison’s staff union at the California facility, said in June that staff was only at about 60 percent of what the prison was authorized.

Young also said the prison is calling people from an applicant list and working with them to try to get them qualified.

But besides that, Young wrote that some hiring difficulties are outside of his control. California state law enforcement and corrections officers earned “notably” higher salaries, he said. And many applicants don’t pass the rigorous background checks or tests for potential correctional officers.

“Some of the most difficult criteria to meet for applicants is having a good credit history, maintaining a clear background check, and passing the written and physical exams,” Young wrote.

Harris’ spokesman, Chris Harris, said the senator’s office is glad to see the Bureau of Prisons acknowledge that staffing and air conditioning issues need to improve.

“Sen. Harris was pleased that the Bureau of Prisons acknowledged the status quo is unacceptable,” Chris Harris said. “We will continue to monitor the situation at Mendota to ensure the BOP follows through on its commitment to hire additional staff, hold managers and supervisors accountable, and improve its facilities as fast as they can.”

Young said problems with air conditioning in the federal prison in Mendota were mostly fixed as of this month. Certain housing units have reportedly sat empty for more than a year due to air conditioning issues.

When the air conditioning goes out at the federal prison in Mendota, officers need to move inmates out of certain dormitories due to overheating, which overcrowds other areas for already understaffed correctional officers, according McGlothin. Inmates also become more irritable and prone to fights — an issue compounded by low staffing levels.

The issue of understaffing at federal prisons received a national spotlight when accused sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein was found dead in his cell in a federal prison earlier this month. Law enforcement officials say he had not been checked on for about three hours, a violation of protocol, when he had tried to commit suicide only weeks earlier. The New York City medical examiner determined Epstein had died by suicide.

Attorney General Bill Barr, who has authority over federal prisons, has vowed to get to the bottom of why Epstein was left unsupervised so soon after he had tried to commit suicide.

The U.S. is spending about as much money on its prisons as it did three years ago, but spending on facilities plummeted in that timeframe, from $530 million to $162 million this year.

The number of positions funded has also fallen from 43,369 in 2016 to 38,610 in 2019.

That represents a 70 percent decrease in spending on facilities and an 11 percent decrease in personnel.

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Kate Irby is based in Washington, D.C. and reports on issues important to McClatchy’s California newspapers, including the Sacramento Bee, Fresno Bee and Modesto Bee. She previously reported on breaking news in D.C., politics in Florida for the Bradenton Herald and politics in Ohio for the Cleveland Plain Dealer.