How bad are conditions at an NC women’s prison? A service group stopped bringing its dogs

The North Carolina Correctional Institution for Women in Raleigh.
The North Carolina Correctional Institution for Women in Raleigh. Google Earth

The idea behind the state’s “New Leash on Life” program is to let North Carolina prison inmates learn the skill of training dogs. But when a local animal rescue group brought six dogs to the N.C. Correctional Institution for Women in Raleigh to live and learn with the inmates, there was a problem. The prison’s living quarters have no air conditioning and the overheated dogs paced and panted as temperatures rose.

The group pulled the dogs out from May until September. The humans were left to swelter.

Meredith Pope, a member of the dog rescue group, said the program ended three years ago, but during its two years of operation the dogs were removed as summer approached. “The dogs couldn’t withstand the heat and it broke our hearts because the women had to,” she said.

Some 1,200 women in the prison’s medium-security and minimum-security sections must cope every summer with high temperatures compounded by high humidity. This summer, from May until mid-September, there were more than 60 days with highs of 90 degrees or above – 25 such days in July alone.

Meriel Brodie, a Catholic volunteer who has been bringing communion to the Raleigh prison since 2006, said the conditions overwhelm some women, who are taken to the prison’s medical building to cool off. She said the inmates, some of whom are pregnant or older, deserve relief. “I’m not trying to coddle people,” she said. “I’m just trying to give them basic human standards of living.”

The summer heat is not a problem at the state’s Wake County prison facilities for men. Central Prison and the Wake Correctional Center have air conditioning, as do the administrative offices and medical building at the women’s prison.

John M.R. Bull, a spokesman of the North Carolina Department of Public Safety, said the Raleigh women’s prison was built in 1938 before air conditioning became common, and the cost of adding it is beyond the budget of the division of prisons He said a lack of air conditioning is fairly common in North Carolina prisons, where nearly 40 percent of the inmates are housed in buildings without it.

“Installing air conditioning in all the state prisons has been discussed periodically over the years,” Bull said. “Each year, the Division of Prisons has a limited amount of money available for repairs and renovations.”

Benita J. Witherspoon, the warden at the Raleigh women’s prison, said steps are taken to protect inmates from excessive heat. She said in a statement: “We provide water and ice to everyone in the facility, use large fans to circulate the air as much as we can and we reduce outside work and activities during heat waves.”

A former inmate told me corrections officers at times turn off the fans as punishment and the fans are removed on Sept. 1. She said she would take a shower with her clothes on so the wet clothing would cool her at night. Now working in Raleigh, she said of those still in the women’s prison on Thursday, when the high hit 96 degrees, “Today, I’m thinking about them in the heat and they are trapped.”

In Texas in 2017, inmates won a court order to install air conditioning in a state prison on grounds that the lack of it represents unconstitutional cruel and unusual punishment. The federal judge who issued the order recently expressed frustration that state officials have been slow to comply. In an emergency hearing, U.S. District Judge Keith Ellison suggested what would spur action: “It seems the most obvious sanction is pretty straightforward. We ought to have prison officials in prison at the same temperature.”

Turning up the heat on North Carolina state officials would help as well. Gov. Roy Cooper and state lawmakers should demand that these women suffering just a mile from their offices — and indeed all state prison inmates — be spared brutal heat as they serve their time. The state’s treatment of offenders shouldn’t itself be an offense against human decency and dignity.

Barnett: 919-829-4512, nbarnett@ newsobserver.com