VACAVILLE — State prison officials probed for answers Friday to the heat-related deaths of three mentally ill inmates, and at the same time opened the crowded and sweltering California Medical Facility to reporters.
"This is a big place, very complex," said Warden Eddie Ylst. "But there is nothing to hide."
Officials say they do not know what killed the three inmates on Wednesday morning. They all were using mind-altering drugs known to raise body temperatures. The Central Valley, where the 36-year-old prison is located, has been suffering under a severe heat wave during the last week.
"It seems significant that all three of the patients who died were on (anti-psychotic) medications," said William Mayer, director of the Mental Health Department, which is in charge of the prison psychiatric hospital.
"We tried reducing the doses of medication on substantial doses (during the heat wave)," he added. "But that in itself is risky because you risk losing medical control of the patient."
The drugs used by the prisoners cause dehydration, but the tranquilizing effect may mask thirst, prison doctors said. Literature on the drugs urges caution during high temperatures, said Dr. Daniel Thor, chief medical officer at the prison.
Such drugs have been widely used at the prison for years. As many as 1,000 inmates receive similar medication, according to prison doctors who said that previous heat waves have not caused such severe reactions.
Prison doctors speculated that the suddenness with which the heat wave arrived may have triggered the fatal reactions before the inmates' bodies had time to adjust.
In the sprawling prison complex here, more than 7,000 inmates are housed in the medical facility, a reception center for new inmates and a new prison. In the main wing of the medical facility, 2,844 prisoners are jammed into space designed for 1,854.
On the third floor of I-unit, where two of the prisoners died, officers and inmates were sweating freely in the mid-day heat Friday as large fans at both ends of the tier of cells blasted hot air.
Most of the inmates were shirtless because of the heat and some were stripped to their shorts. The noise in the unit was clamorous, harsh and continuous.
Lt. Anthony Kane, who is in charge of I-unit, said officers begin providing ice as soon as the mercury hits 90 degrees, and were doing so before the deaths. Officials say they regularly measure the temperature in the cells and that it never reached more than 99 this week.
The cost of installing air-conditioning in all units would run into the millions of dollars, officials said.
"If you brought that request (for air-conditioning) to Sacramento, they might not stop laughing till Christmas," said correctional officer William Campbell, president of the officers' union at the prison. While air-conditioning might be "nice," he said, he would prefer that the Department of Corrections hire more staff.
The third prisoner died in Q-unit, an air-conditioned hospital wing of the prison. Officials said that when doors are kept shut, the temperature in that unit levels off at 75 degrees.
But the vent in at least one cell in the hospital wing was blowing virtually no air when reporters visited on Friday. It was 80 degrees in one room, even though a fan was blowing.
Mayer, the Mental Health Department director, said the air-conditioning had stopped functioning in the hospital unit on the day before the deaths for up to "a couple of hours."
The prisoner who died in the hospital unit fell ill shortly after 7 a.m. on Wednesday and was rushed to the prison emergency room, where a doctor could not revive him. Shortly afterward, calls for help came from I-unit where the other two prisoners were found unconscious.
"The curious thing about it is that it didn't happen during the hot part of the day," said Thor.
The dead inmates were Cecil Bracy, 37 of Los Angeles; James Otwell, 38, of San Joaquin County and Joseph Cannata, 39, of Alameda.
Prison officials said Friday that two other inmates had died Tuesday, apparently of causes not related to the heat. One inmate hanged himself in the psychiatric hospital and the other, who suffered from coronary disease, died of a heart attack in his cell, according to prison officials.
The California Medical Facility has long been the target of law suits seeking reforms, and corrections officials face a possible contempt citation for allegedly failing to provide psychiatric care mandated in a federal court order.
Michael Bien, an attorney representing inmates at the facility said a federal court hearing is scheduled next month to consider accusations that officials have failed to properly staff the psychiatric care program.
"I think you have to step back from this whole thing and say, 'How many people can we shove into this system and should we be building more prisons or should we fix up the ones we have and be providing appropriate care for the ones who are here,' " Bien said.
Bruce Slavin, a deputy state attorney general, acknowledged that because of recruiting problems the prison only has about one-third of the 98 staff members needed to run the psychiatric program.
The California Medical Facility was built in 1955 and was once considered a national model for medical penology.
"Now Vacaville is going under because of the crush of the mass (prison) population increase," said John Irwin, professor of sociology at San Francisco State University and an expert on prisons.
Irwin doubts that the inmates' deaths will spark public outrage.
"I don't think the public has much sympathy for convicts," said Irwin, who served time for armed robbery in the 1950s. "I don't think there's going to be much reaction at all. I think that's a horror that's true."
Morain reported from Vacaville and Hurst from Los Angeles.