After four long years at a supermax facility in Baraga County, Michigan, I am now housed at the Michigan Reformatory or RMI, a less restrictive multi-level prison in Ionia County.
My unit, one of nine “close security” cellblocks at RMI, consists of 96 shabby cells lying end to end. When you look through the bars, you see a catwalk and then windows facing a big yard. The sun blazes into those windows intensely enough that we have to use our hands as visors.
One morning in mid-June, some of us are watching the news and a heat advisory crawls along the bottom of our televisions. It’s 96 degrees, with some areas in the state reaching more than 100. Since the normal chatter about prison life, women and money continues to course through the hallway, I think nothing of the day ahead.
At about 2 p.m. I’m outside exercising amid the other guys doing pull-ups, push-ups and burpees. Others shoot hoops, play cards or talk to their loved ones on the phone. Everyone is sweating, even if they’re standing still.
I’m actually looking forward to going back inside. I can’t wait to shower, lay on my mat, and be cool. Plus, I just bought one of those West Bend fans, a small one that fits on the desk above my bed, next to my TV.
But when I get back to my cell block, I discover that the floor is oddly wet, despite the four industrial fans in my hallway.
I ask a passing inmate what’s going on here, and he shares an unfortunate truth: “Summertime at RMI always sucks,” he says nonchalantly. “Buy another fan, bro.”
He abruptly walks away, trying to beat the shower rush.
I catch on to his quickness and hurry along to the shower. We wash in groups of eight, and the unspoken rule is to keep your shorts on in the shower. After all, you never know if there is a predator present.
When I go back to my cell after eight minutes of warm water, I can’t tell if I’m still damp from the shower or if this is new sweat.
The sun sets, but the humidity and heat persists. My floor, toilet, walls and cell bars are sweating. The apple on my desk has a puddle under it. I run my little fan, but it just feels like someone is blowing hot breath on me. I imagine I’m inside a whale’s mouth. There is no way I can sleep.
The next morning brings no relief. We still have to walk slowly, so we won’t slip on the damp floor. I mention the situation to one of the few inmates I know at this facility, an older brown-skinned brother who has been here for five years. “This ain’t nothing,” he says. “By the time we get back, yo’ bedsheets will be wet.”
After my morning shower, I go back to my cell and see that the guy was right. My sheets are so wet I have to hang them up. Later, I discover that the papers and books I have stored in my locker are withered and full of waves.
I suspect this moisture has to be some kind of health hazard, with dangerous bacteria and mold growing and spreading. And even though I don’t usually have allergy symptoms, I begin to heave and huff. When I hear my neighbor clicking and clearing his throat, I ask him what he does to beat this oppressive heat. “It can’t be like this all summer!” I declare.
His reply is thoroughly disappointing: “We wait it out,” he says dryly. “That’s all we can do.”
According to Chris Gautz, a spokesperson for the Michigan Department of Corrections, “The assistant deputy warden of housing and resident unit manager both state no such concerns have been brought to their attention. The grievance coordinator also states no complaint has been received from prisoner Buckley.”