GOODYEAR, Ariz. — It’s a perspective we don’t often get to hear – a former inmate returning to the prison that sculpted her path now.
"It’s bittersweet," said Sara Schweigart, standing outside Perryville prison at the end of July, just a few weeks after her release. "This place changed my life. It saved me."
But now she feels compelled to speak up and try to save the other incarcerated women at Perryville.
"It's a travesty to me that it's been all these years in prison in the desert and our mothers and our sisters and our aunts in our family and, even the men too, they're they're suffering," she said, of the heat problems at the complex.
On Wednesday, Gov. Katie Hobbs finally addressed concerns over extreme heat at Perryville prison.
The I-Team broke the news last week that the Arizona Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation and Reentry's own records show certain cells hitting more than 100 degrees in the middle of July.
Schweigart spent five years at women’s prison in Goodyear, getting out in June 2023, right before July’s big heatwave.
"What’s the hottest you remember your cell getting?" asked the I-Team's Erica Stapleton.
"104," Schweigart said.
"Can you describe to someone what that feels like?" Stapleton asked.
"Death," said Schweigart. "It feels like everything is melting off of you and you’re never going to make it out."
According to Perryville temperature logs obtained by the 12News I-Team, certain cells at Perryville hit more than 100 degrees on July 17. The Department hasn’t yet provided records beyond that date, but inmates and their family members repeatedly told the I-Team that the triple-digit temps in the cells weren’t anything new.
"Are cells above 100 degrees acceptable?" asked Team 12's Brahm Resnik.
"No," Hobbs said.
Hobbs did not respond to several of the I-Team’s requests for an interview about extreme heat at Perryville prison in July but sat down one on one with Team 12’s Brahm Resnik Wednesday.
"How did you find out and did you communicate to your prisons director that something needs to be done here?" Resnik asked.
"I didn’t have to communicate," Hobbs responded. "He was on top of it and he was the one that alerted us to the problem and he’s taking action."
"Our reporting indicates he may not have been on top of it," Resnik said. "Because he wasn’t getting the right information or maybe he just didn’t grasp the situation. Did you see any evidence of that?"
"No," Hobbs replied.
Prison Director Ryan Thornell only went to Perryville after hearing extreme heat concerns from the I-Team in an interview on July 19, 2023.
At the time, he said he hadn’t seen any reports of cells hotter than 100 degrees, despite the prison’s own records showing that there were.
"We inherited a corrections system that hasn’t always treated people humanely," said Governor Hobbs. "So there’s a lot of systemic issues that need to be addressed. There’s a lot Director Thornell has to take on there. I believe he’s up to the task. It’s going to take a lot of time."
But inmates and their loved ones are asking for urgency.
"I think it's a good start," Schweigart said. "It's not enough. I think that it's a little too late. They've known about these issues they've known there's been issues for years, and they've done little to nothing about it."
Part of the problem is that some of the cooling equipment can’t keep up.
Another thing that stood out from the logs is that Lumley and Santa Cruz, the two units with swamp coolers, not AC, were consistently hotter than cells with air conditioning.
The department said that AC for those units, Lumley and Santa Cruz, are in the budget but not until the end of next year.
The I-Team had only been talking with Schweigart outside of the prison for about 10 minutes before stopping for a water break. A reminder that the extreme heat inside the prison doesn't just impact safety.
"They're depleted," Schweigart said, referring to the inmates. "They're tired. They aren't getting any sleep in order to stay cool."
To her, the inability to handle the extreme heat hurts the rehabilitation efforts, a mission that’s literally in the department’s name.
"It's hard to want to better yourself and live in that type of environment and be tired and hot," she shared.
The I-Team has repeatedly asked the Department of Corrections for another interview with Thornell, but was told he wasn’t available at all this week.
The media team still has not responded to our written questions we sent Friday over email or any follow-ups we sent this morning.
The media team sent the following statement Wednesday afternoon:
"Our team remains committed to keeping cooling systems functioning while supporting the additional strategies that have been put into place. These efforts will continue until we have safely made it through the summer weather. As previously noted, we will provide updates to our heat relief strategies as they occur."
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