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Federal Court Says Texas Prisons Without Air Conditioning Violates Eighth Amendment

Monday, the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in a Texas case that extreme heat can violate prisoners' rights.

The case, which involved a 64-year-old former Texas Department of Criminal Justice inmate suffered from hypertension and other medical ailments, claimed that the extreme heat the prisoners endured amounted to unconstitutionally cruel and unusual punishment.

A federal court in New Orleans held that allowing an inmate to be "exposed to extreme temperatures can constitute a violation of the Eighth Amendment." The case was remanded back to the district court for a new trial.

"This is a huge victory for all Texas prisoners," said Scott Medlock, director of the Texas Civil Rights Project's Prisoners' Rights Program. "Hopefully this decision will force TDCJ to reconsider housing prisoners in such dangerous conditions." 

TDCJ spokesman Jason Clark said agency officials had not reviewed the opinion and could not comment. 

Only 21 of the 111 TDCJ units are fully air-conditioned.  An additional 90 units are partially air-conditioned in the offices, medical and education areas but not in the housing areas.

Texas Lawsuit Alleges Prisons Without Air Conditioning are Inhumane

A lawsuit was filed by the Texas Civil Rights Project on behalf of 58 year old Larry Gene McColuum who died while suffering a seizure in the soaring 100 degree heat while incarcerated in a Texas prison.  McCollum was taken to the hospital where his body temperature was measured at 109.4 degrees Fahrenheit.  He fell into a coma and died six days later of what an autopsy concluded was hyperthermia "due to housing in a hot environment without air conditioning."

Only 21 of Texas' 111 prisons are fully air conditioned.  The remaining have some AC but not in the inmates' quarters. 

The Texas Department of Criminal Justice  wouldn't comment on the lawsuit, but spokesman Jason Clark passed along an emailed statement that said the agency "strives to mitigate the impact of temperature extremes" by providing ice and additional water to inmates, restricting outside activity, training employees and inmates to be aware of heat stroke, and allowing fans for all custody levels, among other measures. 

Houston Sen. John Whitmire, who chairs the state’s Criminal Justice Committee, said the cost of air conditioning the state’s prisons would be too expensive and that the lawsuits won’t get anywhere. 

“The bottom line is it is a miserable place to be. Prison is not a pleasant place and it was actually designed to be not pleasant,” he said.

Whitmire said he also believes that many inmates enter the prison system with pre-existing conditions and that’s what’s behind their deaths.

The lawsuit claims there were 11 heat related deaths in 2011.  Four of those deaths occurred in one South Texas prison. 

Eugene Blackmon, 67,  claims the intense heat gives him headaches and blurred vision.  He filed a lawsuit and hired an expert who took measurements inside the dorm.  The indoor temperature for that summer reach a staggering 134 degrees.

It's interesting that state law requires that all jails keep an inside temperature between 65 and 85 degrees, but that law doesn't apply to state prisons.

McCollum was serving a yearlong sentence at the Hutchins State Jail. He had only been there three days when he collapsed and later died.