An aging Connecticut prison with a history of maintenance issues lost heat for part of the day on Christmas, when the state was experiencing near-freezing conditions, an official with the Connecticut Department of Correction said Monday.
The loss of heat at the Cheshire Correctional Institution, a high-security prison, was caused by a faulty hose and control valve caused by fluctuating temperatures, according to Karen Martucci, a spokeswoman for the state’s prison system. The system was repaired by staff, restoring heat on Christmas Day, she added.
Martucci was unable to say how much of the roughly 1,000-bed prison was without heat while the system was being fixed, though she said that impacted prisoners were provided with extra blankets to stay warm. Martucci said it was not the first time the prison, opened in 1913, has had problems with its heating systems.
“Based on the age of the facility, we have dealt with similar issues in the past,” Martucci said in an email. “Anything of this type is deemed to be a priority and handled immediately.”
Advocates for better conditions at Connecticut’s prisons also noted a history of problems with the heating and cooling systems at Cheshire on Monday, saying that the agency has failed to come up with a long-term solution.
“It was not uncommon for the heat and ventilation system to go down,” said Michael Braham, a former prisoner who served 20 years at Cheshire before being released earlier this year.
In addition to freezing temperatures and a lack of hot water when the heat went down in winter, Braham said the prison “would be sweltering in the summer, with no air,” due to frequent malfunctions with the cooling system, which he said relied on the same aging pipes as the heat.
Debra Martinez, the sister of a prisoner at Cheshire who helps operate a support group for other prison families, said that she began hearing from multiple people on Christmas Eve who were concerned about their loved ones dealing with a lack of heat at Cheshire.
Martinez said she spoke with her brother, who confirmed the problem, and contacted Deputy Warden Carlos Nunez, who she said replied to her “within moments,” saying that staff were working to find a solution.
“He said it was cold,” Martinez recalled her brother saying. “He said he had been wearing his robe on top of whatever other clothes he had, he said it wasn’t only the residents but the officers who were affected.”
Braham said that issues with the heating and cooling systems were often only addressed during his time at the prison when the temperatures caused staff to complain. Even then, he said, only temporary repairs were made and no preventative maintenance was done to avoid future problems.
Martinez also faulted the Department of Correction for not putting in more resources to fix the long-term maintenance problems at Cheshire, though she said the current wardens at Cheshire are “fantastic” at addressing concerns when they are raised by family members. After hearing complaints on Christmas Day, she said the heat was back on by around 2:30 p.m.
“Band-Aid repairs must be a thing of the past,” Martinez said in a text message Monday. “No heat or hot water is an unacceptable working environment and living environment… It’s fiscally irresponsible of our state to keep going with temporary fixes in any building or keeping buildings that cause serious health issues for staff and residents.”
The Department of Correction also faced allegations recently of dirty, foul-smelling water at another state prison where two inmates tested positive for Legionnaires’ Disease. Prison officials did not identify a suspected source of the outbreak.
Temperatures in Cheshire reached a low of 27 degrees on Christmas, as most of the state was placed under a winter weather advisory for at least part of the day.
John Moritz covers politics and local government in the shoreline region of Connecticut. A native of Norwalk, he spent five years reporting on news and politics in Arkansas, where he won awards for stories on an epidemic of gun violence and the state's execution of four prisoners in 2017. He holds a degree in journalism and political science from Temple University.