Under COVID-19 restrictions, inmates at the Indiana Women’s Prison have spent many hours a day locked in their cells, which do not have toilets or running water and can get hotter than outside. The conditions have prompted health and fire safety concerns from advocates, politicians — even employees — especially in recent weeks as temperatures climbed.
But the prison recently took one step to help with those concerns, at least temporarily.
In a July 23 e-mail, prison officials ordered cell doors to remain unlocked and open “until further notice due to the Extreme Heat we are experiencing. It is not optional.”
Under the lockdown, prisoners may have been stuck in their cells much of the day, except for recreation and work activities. The prison’s policy stated that doors were to be opened when the outdoor heat index rose above 91 degrees.
The doors have remained open since last week. However, an employee at the Indianapolis prison says it’s unclear when or if the facility will revert to a lockdown. The employee spoke to Side Effects on the condition of anonymity because they didn’t have permission to speak with the media.
The change applies to units known as “the cottages,” which the employee describes as “concrete bunkers.” Keeping doors open, they say, has helped with the heat in the rooms.
“It’s still really hot,” the employee says.
The employee adds that keeping doors open also makes it easier on inmates and correctional officers, who must unlock doors individually when inmates need the bathroom: “The ladies can just come out of their rooms and shout to the officer, and the officer can just say ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ It’s a lot easier on everybody.”
At least one inmate is excited about the change. “Things here might be getting better,” the prisoner wrote to an advocate, who asked not to disclose the prisoner’s name for fear of retaliation. “Today the officer said … doors are to be unlocked and open until further notice! Whew!”
The inmate and the employee said that the changes occurred following a visit from Indiana Department of Correction officials. A department spokesperson wrote that the doors would "remain unlocked 24 hours a day barring a security concern or a spike of COVID-19 infections at the women’s prison."
This story was produced by Side Effects Public Media, a news collaborative covering public health. Jake Harper can be reached at email@example.com. He's on Twitter @jkhrpr.