By Christopher Zoukis
Federal Correctional Institution Mendota, located near Fresno, California, houses about 800 inmates. Opened in 2012, the medium-security male prison in California with an adjacent minimum-security camp has recently been the focus of numerous investigations on whether conditions there pose serious dangers to the health of inmates and staff. Complaints about temperature levels due to a defective heating and cooling system, and about persistent toxic mold, have attracted investigators at numerous Congressional panels and federal agencies, according to published reports.
The Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs and the House Judiciary Committee have reportedly been looking into conditions of the prison in California. The head of the union local representing staffers at the facility complained to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) that toxic mold in a key work area was making corrections staff sick; he says the Department of Justice’s Office of Inspector General and the U.S. Office of Special Counsel, an independent agency protecting whistleblowers, have also made inquiries.
The Fresno area saw record-breaking temperatures area this summer, with daily highs hitting 100° or above nearly every day in July. Many federal prisons lack any air conditioning system, much less a functioning one. The Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) does not require air conditioning, though its operating manual advises facilities to maintain a temperature of 76° during cooling seasons and 68° during heating seasons, with variances of a few degrees allowed.
During the sweltering summer, Mendota inmates sought relief from the oppressive heat by wrapping themselves with wet towels. With the cooling system broken and overhead fans merely circulating hot air through the facility, temperatures for some 70 inmates in the lower-security facility remained around 90°, which the union chief likened to “being in a convection oven.” During the heating season, in-cell temperatures were often around 50, and extra blankets were banned, as a security threat.
Toxic black mold is beneath floor and behind baseboards in the control room for security operations, a locked, unventilated, flooding-prone room where most corrections staff spent much time; some blame that for respiratory ailments. While both the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Environmental Protection Agency recommend mold be promptly removed from the prison in Calfornia to minimize health risks, however, BOP has no standard on that issue.
Critics within and outside BOP point to cutbacks in maintenance funds as at least partly to blame for such problems. OSHA notes that in 2015, the most recent year for which had figures, the agency received 81 complaints about mold in incarceration settings (the statistic includes local and state facilities, as well as federal ones, and doesn’t indicate whether OSHA found the complaints justified or took any action).
The Mendota workers’ union president said BOP refused to have the mold analyzed, but a private study he’d had done showed it was hazardous. BOP sent its in-house safety official out to take a look, the union chief noted, but received inaccurate assurances from Mendota’s warden that everything had later been fixed. His emails to acting BOP director Hugh Hurwitz about continuing health and safety problems received no reply.
BOP seems not to have made any specific response to the allegations, except to express its commitment to making inmate and worker safety as “our highest priority.”
Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, (Middle Street Publishing, 2017), and College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014). He regularly contributes to New York Daily News, Prison Legal News and Criminal Legal News. He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com, PrisonEducation.com and PrisonerResource.com.