When it gets hot in Bayport, Minnesota, during the summer, men who have been imprisoned at the nearby Stillwater prison often describe the heat in the old, un-air-conditioned cell blocks in the same manner: the walls themselves start to sweat. 

That’s how Kevin Reese, who runs the nonprofit Until We Are All Free, remembers the summers he spent as a prisoner there between 2006 and 2009. But if Stillwater was a “pizza oven,” as he also put it, nearly 20 years ago, this scorching summer is in a different category altogether. 

The heat-dome conditions that broke heat-index records across the Midwest affected Minnesota too, where in late August, the “feels-like” temperature hit 122 degrees just outside of the Twin Cities. And when the heat neared 100 degrees in Bayport over Labor Day weekend, a group of around 100 men in one of the prison’s housing units had had enough: they refused to go back into their cells, sending the prison into a lockdown.

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Around 1,200 men are imprisoned in Stillwater, which was built in 1914, when the prison population paled in comparison to today’s historically high numbers. In Minnesota, just over a third of the prison population is Black, despite Black people comprising just 6% of the state overall. 

As is the case in many prison systems across the country, Stillwater is understaffed, and particularly so over a holiday weekend like Labor Day. (There are also long-running issues at Stillwater with the drinking water, which prisoners say is often nearly brown.) 

After months of limited access to basic summer needs like showers and ice due allegedly to staffing-related lockdowns, the group of prisoners simply would not go back into their cells on September 3  after being released into the common area.

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“They didn’t have time to organize and plan,” Marvina Haynes of Minnesota Wrongfully Convicted Judicial Reform, whose brother is locked up in Stillwater, told the Associated Press. “It was just … we’re not going back to that hot cell with no drinking water and not being able to shower.”

Prison staff were all removed from the common area during the time that the prisoners refused to go back to their cells, save for two guards who were in a locked observation room. But unlike previous incidents of prisoner unrest at Stillwater, this was not a full uprising; for most of the time, they remained out of their sweltering cells, the prisoners sat at the common-room tables and played cards. 

Incarcerated populations are at particular risk of extreme heat events, as prisons often do not have air conditioning, even in sweltering parts of the country, like the South. And as the highest highs increase due to climate change, heat waves are becoming more deadly for prisoners.

According to a July report from the Prison Policy Project, extreme heat events (“within the hottest 10% of days for a particular location”) are linked with a 3.5% increase in deaths. Not only do people die as a direct result of the heat, but the report also found that there is an increase in deaths by suicide in the wake of an extremely hot day.

At Stillwater, the protest was resolved “peacefully” later that same day, according to the state department of corrections. Two prisoners who still refused to go back to their cells after others returned were put into the segregation unit. But an unnamed Stillwater prisoner who called Twin Cities Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee said three prisoners are allegedly being charged with kidnapping and threatening staff. 

“They in here giving these guys all this time and trying to keep them in prison even longer just because of this,” he said on the call. (Another news report puts the number of prisoners in segregation at seven, including leaders of the protest.)

In the wake of the protest, new water tests are being conducted at the prison, and bottled water has been brought in for both prisoners and staff. But not only is nothing being done about the heat, the Stillwater remained on lockdown for the past week in response to the protest, with prisoners stuck in their cells with sweating walls. The lockdown will begin to be lifted on Monday. 

Willy Blackmore is a freelance writer and editor covering food, culture, and the environment. He lives in Brooklyn.