Politics & Government

It’s 100 degrees in California and this prison’s air conditioning is broken, again

Temperatures are supposed to hover around 100 degrees this week at a federal prison in the Southern San Joaquin Valley, and they’ll remain in the high 90s all summer.

For the third year running, prison staff say their air conditioning is broken under the strain of those high temperatures.

It’s one of many maintenance issues that prison staff in Mendota connect to an extended period of flat funding and declining staff for the Bureau of Prisons, which has been adjusting its budget to reflect the falling number of inmates sentenced for federal crimes.

Those cuts have meant some prisons have become disproportionately understaffed, creating safety issues for inmates and correctional officers alike. In semi-arid Mendota 35 miles west of Fresno, tensions reliably rise with the thermometer.

“At this point, the whole facility is screwed up,” said Aaron McGlothin, head of the prison’s staff union at the California facility. “There’s been zero accountability on this.”

The U.S. is spending about as much money on its prisons as it did three years ago, but the number of positions funded has fallen from 43,369 in 2016 to 38,610 in 2019.

Spending on facilities plummeted in that timeframe, from $530 million to $162 million this year.

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

The amount of inmates over that time period has also declined, but at a slower rate. The inmate headcount is down 6 percent, from 192,170 in 2016 to 180,721 today.

When the air conditioning goes out at the federal prison in Mendota, inmates become more irritable and prone to fights. Union representatives say officers need to move inmates out of certain dormitories due to overheating, overcrowding other areas for already understaffed correctional officers.

And that’s just the prison in Mendota.

At a remote prison in Herlong on the Nevada border, shorthanded staffing results in cuts to recreation, training and even a lost visitation day for inmates.

Kyle Barker, president of the prison’s employee union, said the site has a laundry list of persistent maintenance issues, too.

“It’s all over the country, but Herlong and Mendota are two of the worst,” Barker said.

The Bureau of Prisons declined to comment on a list of problems raised by union leaders, only confirming that officials are reviewing the ongoing air conditioning issues in the Mendota prison.

Mendota, with 858 inmates, is at about 60 percent of recommended staffing levels and Herlong, with 979 inmates, is at about 70 percent.

Bureau of Prisons officials have told lawmakers that staffing fell because the Justice Department in 2018 eliminated 5,100 positions, and because it fell behind during a hiring freeze President Donald Trump instituted in 2017, according to a congressional email obtained by McClatchy.

The Herlong and Mendota union leaders contend the department has had more than enough time to catch up from the 2017 freeze. They worry that correctional officers are in danger because of the staffing shortages.

They say a maximum-security prison in Atwater — which is also understaffed — is a cautionary tale.

SUN-STAR PHOTO BY GEORGE MACDONALD The United States Penitentiary in Atwater. Merced Sun-Star

In October 2017, six inmates were charged with attempting to kill a correctional officer at Atwater, when they repeatedly kicked, beat and stabbed the officer with homemade knives. All were convicted or plead guilty to the assault.

Donnie Martin, the union head at Atwater, said understaffing there — which hovers around 80 percent —presents an increased risk to officers.

“Inmates pick up on the low staffing,” Barker from Herlong said.

‘Breakdown after breakdown’

The Bureau of Prisons had a plan to fix the air conditioning in Mendota two years ago, when it hired Open Control Systems with an $185,000 contract to improve the ventilation system.

McGlothin and Paul Millan, the prison’s heating, ventilation and air conditioning foreman, say it’s still unreliable.

“We’ve had breakdown after breakdown,” McGlothin said.

The upgraded system was supposed to put lights, pumps, air conditioning, refrigeration and other features on a centrally controlled system, saving energy costs, but Millan and McGlothin both maintain it has instead caused more issues and made more repairs necessary.

“We’re probably at least $500,000 in the toilet on this issue, at this point,” McGlothin said. “And now that we’re in the summer, hold my beer, because it’s going to get higher.”

Nathan and Alisa Mulder, a husband and wife who own Open Control Systems Inc., say the areas in the prison where air conditioning has been a problem are not controlled by their system.

They are going to put in a bid to expand their system to the whole prison, which they said will fix the issue. They said their system has saved the prison hundreds of thousands of dollars in utility costs. They installed the same system at Herlong, where Barker says it has not caused any issues.

They referred further questions to the facilities manager at Mendota, Marcos Martinez, who did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

A report by another company on their estimate to repair heat pumps in the prison in July 2018 also pointed to the central system as the problem, though it didn’t say whether the pumps were on the old or new system.

“Controls are also cutting in and out on the unit,” the report says. “Controls causing excessive starts, could be the cause of all the leaks.”

Now the air conditioning operates sporadically, and McGlothin said he guaranteed it would break as temperatures consistently hit the triple digits in the summer. That’s what happened last summer, prompting inmates to wrap themselves in cold towels as temperatures sweltered well past the regulations set in the Bureau of Prisons operation manual.

Multiple federal entities were looking into the issue last year, including the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, the House Judiciary Committee, the U.S. Office of Special Counsel and the Justice Department’s Office of Inspector General, according to McGlothin. All either declined to comment on the status of investigations or did not return requests for comment.

Rep. TJ Cox, D-Fresno, sent a letter to the Bureau of Prisons in April, inquiring about maintenance costs, staffing and bonus incentives on returning budget money. Fabiola Rodriguez, a spokeswoman for Cox, said she spoke to officials at the Bureau of Prisons Monday, who said they are working on a response.

At Herlong, officials had to close four out of 12 housing units in January 2017 due to leaking roofs and mold, creating an “artificial overcrowding situation,” according to Barker. And since regulations for the prison only allow one officer per unit, that increased the inmate to staff ratio, another potential hazard for both inmates and officers.

None have reopened.

Other persistent issues, according to Barker, include sewage backing up into several of the housing units and camp, problems with electrical systems, faulty fence alarms and major software issues with the computer systems.

Neither prison is a particularly old facility — Herlong opened in 2005 and Mendota opened in 2012.

Persistent vacancies

In January 2017, federal prisons were at about 88 percent of full staff nationwide. After the 2017 hiring freeze and the elimination of 5,100 positions, that dropped to about 80 percent in the last year, according to congressional emails obtained by McClatchy.

Congress rejected two other requests from the Trump administration that would have eliminated nearly 2,000 more positions.

The “gold standard” for staffing at prisons is about 91 to 92 percent, according to the congressional email.

The Bureau of Prisons got the green light to rehire 3,000 positions this year after the cuts. At Mendota, that’s meant 21 more positions and Herlong gets to fill 10 more positions.

The union leaders say ground-level vacancies persist, in part because administrative positions are prioritized, which means experienced officers are getting promotions.

Barker said the yard at Herlong was relatively quiet in 2017, but over the past year there have been more inmate fights and assaults on staff.

That understaffing means mandatory overtime, sometimes as much as twice per week per correctional officer, which means 16-hour instead of 8-hour shifts. It also means less time at home to rest between shifts, which not only affects officers’ performance but also makes it hard to retain them.

At Herlong, the understaffing issue has gotten so severe that it had to shut down visitation rights for an entire day earlier this year.

“I’ve never seen that in the 18 years I’ve been working in this industry,” Barker said.

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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.