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Texas Prisoners Sue Over 'Cruel' Conditions, Citing Extreme Heat

Keith Cole is one of the Texas inmates in the federal lawsuit challenging extreme heat in Texas prisons.
John Burnett
Keith Cole is one of the Texas inmates in the federal lawsuit challenging extreme heat in Texas prisons.

A group of inmates in Texas is suing the state prison system, the nation's largest, arguing that extreme heat is killing older and infirm convicts. The inmates allege it constitutes "cruel and unusual punishment" and they're asking the courts for relief.

The six plaintiffs are doing time in the Wallace Pack Unit, located in the humid pasturelands between Austin and Houston. Daily measurements taken by the National Weather Service show that since the beginning of this summer, the peak heat index has averaged 104 degrees. That's outside where you might catch a breeze. Inside, inmates say the poorly ventilated, steel and concrete cellblocks are like ovens.

"A lot of times it gets so hot in our dorms that we have to strip down to our boxers, and we'll just lay on the floor because it's a little bit cooler on the floor than it is trying to sit up in our bunks," says plaintiff Keith Cole, 62, who is serving life for murder. "We try to stay in front of our fans. But in reality, there's really not too much that we can really do in our living areas to alleviate the heat."

Cole talks from behind a wire screen in the visitors room. He says he has heart disease, diabetes and hypertension, and there are lots of older prisoners like him in the Pack Unit.

"My age, with the medical conditions that I have, the medications that I'm on, extreme heat can kill me," he says. "So, it's not a comfort issue with me. It has nothing to do with that. This is a serious medical issue."

Autopsies reveal that since 1998, 20 inmates have died from heatstroke or hyperthermia in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, according to plaintiffs' lawyers. Ten of the victims died in the brutal summer of 2011. It's likely that more heat-related deaths occur in prison, but inmates say the cause of death is often listed as heart attack.

The lawsuit is slowly making its way through the federal courts. At present, the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans is deciding whether to certify all the inmates in the Pack Unit as part of a class action challenging extreme heat in their living quarters.

Lawyers point out that Texas county jails and federal prisons are cooled, so why not state prisons?

"All of the people that tend to die are the sickest and the most fragile among the inmates," says lead counsel Jeff Edwards. "What makes what's going on reprehensible is that the department knows this. We're asking the court to force the Texas Department of Criminal Justice to reduce the temperatures to a safe and livable amount."

The conservative 5th Circuit is listening. Last year, it ruled on a similar heat lawsuit filed by death-row inmates in Louisiana. While the court didn't go so far as to order air conditioning in Louisiana prisons, it did agree with the underlying issue. "Housing these prisoners in very hot cells without sufficient access to heat-relief measures, while knowing that each suffers from conditions that render him extremely vulnerable to serious heat-related injury, violates the Eighth Amendment," Judge Edith Jones wrote.

In Texas, the issue is not whether inmates are suffering but what kind of remedy is appropriate. Prison officials have balked at installing air-conditioning equipment in the 79 prisons that don't currently have it. They say the Pack Unit alone would cost $22 million to retrofit.

Prison officials acknowledge that summer heat is extremely dangerous and note that 30 units are already air-conditioned. Moreover, they say that all of the system's medical, psychiatric and geriatric units, as well as solitary confinement, have chilled air.

The Texas Department of Criminal Justice "takes numerous precautions to help reduce heat-related illnesses such as providing water and ice to staff and offenders in work and housing areas. We restrict offender activity during the hottest parts of the day, and we train staff to identify those that may have heat-related illnesses and refer them to medical staff for treatment," according to a TDCJ statement provided to NPR.

Texas prisons are by no means unique. Across the sweltering South, only Arkansas cools its penitentiaries.

"I don't think they deserve air conditioning," says Jim Willett, who worked for 30 years in the Texas prison system, including eight years as a warden. "I don't think it's too hot. I've worked in those cellblocks for many years, for over a decade. When I was growing up I lived for 20 years without air conditioning. I went to public schools [without] air conditioning. I see absolutely no reason why we should air-condition the prisons in Texas."

There's an old saying that prison guards do time, too. But they're not allowed to strip down to their boxers and stand in front of a fan. In fact, they wear long-sleeved shirts, and heavy vests to protect them from stabbings.

"It's hot, it's humid, the walls hold heat. It gets pretty bad," says correctional officer Sgt. Anthony Williams. "If it was 100 degrees outside, it's about 115, 120 on the inside. And offenders may get more violent."

He continues, "It would definitely be nice to have air-conditioned units. It'd be better for us and the offender population."

This issue is not going away. A study published last year by the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia Law School points out that heat waves are becoming more severe, the U.S. inmate population is getting older and most of the nation's 1,700 state prisons are wholly unprepared. Expect more "cruel and unusual punishment" lawsuits focused on hot prisons.

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As NPR's Southwest correspondent based in Austin, Texas, John Burnett covers immigration, border affairs, Texas news and other national assignments. In 2018, 2019 and again in 2020, he won national Edward R. Murrow Awards from the Radio-Television News Directors Association for continuing coverage of the immigration beat. In 2020, Burnett along with other NPR journalists, were finalists for a duPont-Columbia Award for their coverage of the Trump Administration's Remain in Mexico program. In December 2018, Burnett was invited to participate in a workshop on Refugees, Immigration and Border Security in Western Europe, sponsored by the RIAS Berlin Commission.