The Backstory: Sarah Sax

Reporting on Prison Conditions during a Climate Crisis

Sarah Sax

A year ago, Washington’s incarcerated population was left to suffer in temperatures above 100 degrees during a record-breaking heat wave. In her most recent investigation for Type, “When the Heat Is Unbearable but There’s Nowhere to Go,” published in partnership with High Country News, Sarah Sax exposed the chaos and confusion inside state prisons last June using grievances obtained via public records requests and interviews with incarcerated people.

In this conversation, we talk about Washington state prisons’ grievance process, how she connected with incarcerated sources, and her advice for reporters interested in reporting on conditions inside prisons.

Paco Alvarez: So my first question is what initially drew you to your investigation? 

Sarah Sax: Let’s think about that. Really it was a conversation between myself and my editor. I had at the time just started my Climate Justice Fellowship at High Country News and was really gunning to do something more investigative. And so it’s like, okay, what can I FOIA? What kind of public records request can I do? What kind of climate justice-y stories are out there? What needs to be investigated? And right kind of when I had started literally weeks before, had been this massive heat wave. And so it was in Washington it was what everybody was talking about. And during the heat wave, there had been a pretty small report that had come out from the Office of Corrections Ombuds in Washington State that during the heatwave they had gone to one of the Washington state prison complexes and done the report basically being like, well, we found that actually the temperatures are really high and kind of listed all these things. And there was a glass ceiling that reached 125 degrees Fahrenheit. And people were covering the vents because it was pushing hot air from the ceiling into the rooms. 

And so there was a bunch of things where I was like, I bet there’s more there. And I was talking to my editor and she was like, Why don’t you see? Because I was going to just do a public records request for that complex. And she was like, Why don’t you just see if it was the same all throughout Washington? And so we did a much larger public records request looking at all of the procedures, whether they had emergency heat plans. We filed for all of the heat grievances that had occurred during that time. And so I basically wrote up this big public records request and sent it off. And, you know, generally people are supposed to reply within 20 to 30 days and got pushed out and pushed out. And by the time I finished my fellowship, it hadn’t come back yet. And then right as I kind of was transitioning out, I finally got the public records request back in. And that’s kind of how I suppose it was like the genesis of the story. 

Alvarez: So the public records request is for the grievances, right? Primarily? 

Sax: Primarily, and also for kind of supporting documents like we asked about whether they had emergency heat plans, we asked about certain communications. So really it was kind of the grievances, but then also trying to figure out if there are other communications or other documents that would also give us insight into what was happening in the prisons during that time. And I suppose to kind of give a little bit of context so that when we got the grievances back, when I got the grievances back, it was pretty. You know, I kind of got them back. I printed them out and I sat, you know, on my floor in my apartment and just kind of spread them out and start to look at them and start to group them by different prisons throughout the state. A lot of them are quite damning. You kind of read them and you think you can really paint the picture of what it was like for people. And you can see that a lot of them were really distressed and anxious, you know, just simply by the grievances alone. So I got them back and kind of immediately was like, all right, this is definitely like we have, you know, something which I feel like as a journalist and as someone who is kind of moving more into investigative journalism, it’s like one of the best feelings to be like. Yes, like I have a lot of documents that really paint a picture and that are leading me to this larger story that exists. 

Alvarez: What is the grievance process like for people incarcerated in Washington? And how did you learn about it? Like the actual process itself? 

Sax: That’s actually a good question. How did I learn about it? Part of it was – before I did the public records request, I read a bunch of the Marshall Project and the Advocate and Prison Policies Policy. There’s all of these different outlets out there that deal specifically with incarcerated people. So I had read through a bunch of the investigations that had been done and the grievances had come up quite prominently in some of these investigations. And essentially every prison system around the states has a grievance process that was mandated in the late nineties at some point. So it exists everywhere. It differs from system to system. And in Washington, basically, every prison has their own system for grievances but grievances generally are either emergency or normal grievances. And the incarcerated person will get a piece of paper, file a grievance. If it’s an emergency grievance, they’ll hand it to someone. If it’s a non-emergency grievance, maybe put it in a box or potentially hand it to a correctional officer. So there’s different ways of basically passing off that slip of A4 paper where you fill in the date and the time and the incident and you have a little box where you can fill in what exactly happened. And so that grievance makes it to or is supposed to make it to the right person. If it’s an emergency one that makes it to the sergeant or manager who’s on staff, who has to deal with that within a certain amount of time. If it’s a normal grievance, then it goes to a resolution officer and effectively is a way for incarcerated people to be able to make sure that their grievances don’t just stay in this small kind of realm of like their units but is able to go higher up. And there’s also potentially a record of what happened. 

Alvarez: Your story contains a lot of harrowing accounts from incarcerated people of what it was like during the heat wave. How did you go about developing sources that were incarcerated? And did you face any difficulties when communicating with them? 

Sax: Getting the kind of initial contact was a bit difficult. You know, basically there’s two main ways of communicating with incarcerated people. One is through an email message system called JPay, where you pay for every message that goes back and forth. It’s almost like a mixture between email and postcards and you buy stamps and it’s kind of this larger process to sign up for it. The other way is through a phone service GTL where you can sign up and either have an incarcerated have an incarcerated person call you and you can essentially prepay for that. And one other thing about the grievances is the grievances they have to include every incarcerated person has a number. And so the grievances all had numbers of the people that were making the grievances. So I effectively spent a couple of days just sifting through the grievances, figuring out who had submitted multiple ones, whose grievances were really dire, and then which of those people even had a JPay account that I could contact. 

So that was my first line of contact is basically just reaching out in an email and saying, Hey, I’m a journalist and writing story and you wrote this grievance and I’d really like to talk to you about it. And some people were like, Who are you? I don’t want to talk, which is obviously completely legitimate. And a lot of people, the majority were like, I didn’t even know that anybody had access to these was kind of listening. I’d love to talk. I’d love to tell you my story. You know, this is something that’s been going on for a while. And so from there, I then wrote back and forth to them a couple of times. And then eventually with a lot of them, we had phone calls where they would call me and we’d kind of chat about their experience over a series of phone calls. And yeah getting that initial contact was a bit difficult. But ultimately, I think for a lot of the folks that I talked to, they were extremely interested in getting their stories out. And, you know, I had initially had a little bit of  trepidation about whether or not they would want to have their, you know, use their names, etc.. And, you know, every single person I talked to was like, yes, this is an important story. I want you to put it out there and put my name next to it. 

So that process, once the kind of initial trust was developed, was actually relatively easy, although it did kind of shine a light on how frustrating the system, how much control people have over communication. Sometimes for seemingly unknown reasons, it would take a week for a message that I sent to a source to go through. And sometimes if the source gets put in solitary, they can’t access their JPay account, they can’t access phones. And so, with certain people, they would just kind of be off the map for two weeks and then suddenly come back and be like, oh, you know, either I was in solitary or like, I just got your message, I thought you’d forgotten me. And so that whole system, the way it’s set up, definitely does not facilitate a kind of easy communication. 

Alvarez: And have you received any sort of official response since your investigation was published or even a response from the incarcerated people you talked to? 

Sax: I received some really good responses from the incarcerated people. We sent all of the people we interviewed copies of print magazine and made sure that they had access to them because also access to Wi-Fi and to the Internet is sometimes difficult. So I think effectively, all of the people we interviewed sent us back an email saying that they had received it and some of them were extremely happy about it and wrote kind of nice responses. Some of them were just like, I received it, this is great, thanks for including me. So those were kind of the ranges. We never received an official response from the Washington Department of Corrections, and we did follow up with some of the kind of officials that we had interviewed. And, you know, they confirmed that they had gotten it. But as of now, there hasn’t necessarily been any kind of official response to it. 

Alvarez: Have you, beyond what you wrote about in the story – it’s been like, I think, exactly a year since the heat wave started. Has there been any major changes to their plans since the heat wave last year in preparation for any new ones?

Sax: Not that I can tell. I mean, there has in the sense that, you know, last year during the heatwave, two emergency chillers failed and they have repaired them since it seems like. There is a process underway to put AC into one of the women’s prisons. However, that wasn’t actually a response to this heat wave. This has been something that’s been now three years in the making and just still hasn’t finished. I recently got a response back from a reader who, after reading the piece, had sent it to their representative, and their representative had reached out to the Washington State Department of Corrections asking for an update about what had happened. And based on their response, I haven’t fact-checked or followed up with the Washington State Department of Corrections, but it seems like they were instigating that. Every state prison, next time there’s a heat wave, is going to have an emergency heat plan. Again, I haven’t been able to verify that that literally came in today, the message. So, you know, it’s kind of hard to know because I think at the end of the day, well, at the end of the day, we’ll see if and when I suppose the next heat wave happens, what exactly happens and what will be different. And I think that would be a fascinating follow up story to see if anything has changed. But it’s hard to know in advance without doing another kind of investigative story about that. 

Alvarez: And my last question is, do you have any advice for reporters interested in reporting on conditions inside prisons? 

Sax: I think one thing is, you know, definitely do it and in reporting the story. I had a moment of – I’m generally a climate reporter, I report on climate change, environmental degradation, those kind of issues. And in some ways, I always had a kind of background knowledge about how bad the conditions at prisons were. But in doing the story and in talking to a lot of incarcerated people and hearing their thoughts about the heat wave, but also then just kind of coming to understand that obviously what made this heat wave and what makes climate change so precarious, especially in prisons, is the fact that they are already so vulnerable. They already have such bad health protocols. They have bad drinking water standards. They have you know, it’s not that the actual living conditions themselves are already at a pretty low standard. And so when you layer climate change on top of that, it just makes it exponentially more worse. And I think so in some ways my suggestions for people that are interested in reporting this is, you know, definitely, definitely do. There’s a lot of stories out there that I think need to be reported. Incarcerated people are vulnerable for many reasons, have limited access to a lot of information. It’s really helpful to be able to also, you know, some of that communication with incarcerated sources who really do know their rights and do know the law and know what’s up and can point you in the right direction about what to look at. And then there’s also sources that, you know, that didn’t know that grievances were even something that other people could search. So I think my first yeah, my first advice would be definitely go out and see what’s out there. 

I think the second piece of advice is, you know, grievances I do think are a great way to get us to get an understanding of what the issue is. It’s relatively easy to request them with specific parameters. So I think grievances are a great way to both connect with the people who are making the grievances and also figure out, like, what’s even going on. And then there’s there’s a lot of good resources out there by several different organizations that have really put together things like what to look for when you’re someone on the outside reporting on incarcerated people, how to do it in a way that’s like ethically correct. So those things are important to read. And one of the pieces of advice that they put in there, which I cannot emphasize enough is doing this kind of reporting takes a lot of time. And something as simple as like fact checking a sentence from a person could take a day and could take three weeks. And so building in that kind of buffer and really being patient and recognizing that people’s access to things like telephones and JPay and all of this is very is not a given. I think that the third piece of advice is just having a lot of patience and building and a lot of buffer room for those kinds of time constraints. 

About the reporter