‘Help us, we can’t breathe’: Inmate at California women’s prison dies during heat wave

A woman incarcerated at the Central California Women’s Facility in Chowchilla died Saturday during a statewide heat wave and prisoner advocates are blaming her death on heat exhaustion. 

The woman was hospitalized on July 4 and died two days later, California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation spokesperson Mary Xjimenez said Monday afternoon. While an autopsy had not yet been completed, Xjimenez said the cause of death “appeared to be the result of an ongoing medical condition and not heat related.” 

Entrance of the Central California Women's Facility in Chowchilla, California. Photo credit: Daniel Arauz
Entrance of the Central California Women’s Facility in Chowchilla, California. Photo credit: Daniel Arauz

But advocates with the California Coalition for Women Prisoners faulted extreme temperatures inside the prison for the woman’s death, citing reports from multiple people incarcerated in the Central Valley facility located halfway between Modesto and Fresno. In a statement, the organization said the woman “became incoherent” and “dropped to the ground” while taking a shower to cool off. 

The organization called the woman’s death “preventable” and said inmates had reported “widespread headaches, vomiting and other dangerous physical symptoms.”

“Access to cooling spaces as well as cooling items such as ice chips, ice water, electrolytes and cooling towels are simple steps that could be taken to alleviate the situation but officers are not following heat protocols,” the organization said in a statement Monday afternoon. 

Xjimenez said the prison was following “a tailored operational response” based on a state plan for preventing inmate deaths “whenever excessive heat conditions exist.” The spokesperson also said prison officials were “closely monitoring the current heat wave” to ensure California’s 32 prisons have “appropriate resources” to respond to high temperatures. 

The Sacramento Bee reported last year that the prison’s cooling systems were faulty and had left inmates “sweltering” in summer heat. Inmates told the newspaper that locked cells often exceeded 80 degrees with little to no ventilation. 

A spokesperson for the Madera County coroner’s office, Kayla Gates, declined to identify the woman and referred questions to prison officials. Elizabeth Nomura, an organizer with California Coalition for Women Prisoners, said she was from Sacramento. 

Nomura said the organization received many “distressing” messages from people incarcerated at the prison as extreme heat descended on the Central Valley. Temperatures surpassed 111 degrees in Chowchilla over the weekend as a heat wave ushered in dangerously hot conditions, according to the National Weather Service. 

The statewide heat wave began July 2. Temperatures recorded by the NWS near the prison topped 108 degrees on Monday, even as parts of California were expected to see brief relief as a heat dome over the state shifts

“It is horrible the amount of calls and emails we are getting from people inside just begging for help, saying ‘Help us, help us, we can’t breathe,’ ” Nomura said in an interview. 

RELATED: Yale-prison partnership awards degrees to inmates

Some inmates were tracking the heat using the temperature gauges on their digital clocks, said Nomura, who was formerly incarcerated at the prison. Temperatures reportedly exceeded 95 degrees inside some prison cells with no windows that hold up to eight people, she said. 

“There is hot air blowing inside of our rooms, I have a huge migraine and I feel sick and other girls are throwing up,” Trancita Ponce, an inmate at the prison, told advocates. 

The organization urged corrections administrators to implement “immediate” lifesaving heat protocols at all California prisons, including access to ice and air conditioned spaces and regular medical checkups. 

“With increasing deadly heat waves in California due to climate change, the CDCR must not only follow its existing policies but develop and implement new policies that adequately protect the health and lives of incarcerated people,” said Kelly Savage-Rodriguez, a staff coordinator with the organization who also was formerly incarcerated at the prison. 

Share This article on

Generated by Feedzy