DALLAS — Claiming that even the prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, is air conditioned, prisoners in Texas have filed a federal lawsuit over soaring temperatures in state prisons that they say have killed at least 12 prisoners in the last three years.
The suit, filed by the Texas Civil Rights Project and the University of Texas School of Law Civil Rights clinic on behalf of the prisoners, isn’t seeking monetary damages. It seeks cooler temperatures for the prisoners. Eighty-eight degrees to be exact.
The lawsuit, broadly concerned about the lack of air conditioning across state facilities, centers on a facility in Navasota, Texas, known as the Wallace Pack Unit. Located about 70 miles northwest of Houston, the facility houses about 1,400 men. As of January, the compliant said, 114 men over the age of 70 were housed there. They have no air conditioning, and the windows which do open provide little relief, the suit claims, leading to temperatures inside that often exceed those outside.
And outside it’s hot.
The suit cites internal data from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice which found that over the past three years the mercury topped 100 degrees Fahrenheit. “Stainless steel tables in the inmate dormitories become hot to the touch” the complaint reads and “prisoners have to lay towels down on the table to rest their elbows while sitting.”
In addition to the older inmates, the complaint said a number of men have various underlying medical conditions that make them especially vulnerable to heat stroke, like 69-year-old Marvin Yates, who has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and hypertension.
“I don’t know if I will make it this summer. The heat and humidity are so bad inside I have trouble breathing,” said Yates, one of three named plaintiffs, in a press release announcing the lawsuit.
The lawsuit alleges some 20 deaths since 1998 and details names, ages and internal body temperatures of the victims, including cases where the body temperature recorded was well over 100 degrees. One man, 45-year-old Rodney Adams, died one day after his arrival. His internal temperature registered 109.9.
There is air conditioning in some parts of the facility. The law library, education building and visitation center all are equipped with air conditioning, according to the complaint, but the inmates are “rarely allowed” in these areas. The complaint also said that the warden’s office and other administrative buildings have air conditioning.
County prisons also have air conditioning. Texas statute mandates those jails keep temperatures between 65 and 85 degrees inside, but the state system, according to the complaint, has no such requirement. The lawsuit alleges the conditions violate federal law and the inmate’s constitutional rights against cruel and unusual punishment.
Men treated worse than pigs?
The lawsuit alleges that hogs on Texas Department of Criminal Justice property receive better treatment than the prisoners. “TDCJ policy requires temperatures be kept no higher than 85 degrees to ensure ‘pig comfort,'” the suit said, adding that the department begins “to cool the pigs when the temperature goes above 74 degrees to keep the pigs ‘comfortable.'”
Jason Clark, a spokesman for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, said the department couldn’t comment on pending legislation. But he did spell out what the agency does to “mitigate temperature extremes.” The agency provides water and allows for additional showers “when feasible.” Clark also said the staff is trained to identify “offenders susceptible to heat-related issues.”
Guards not immune
But according to the complaint the staff may also need to identify heat-related issues for one another, since they also have to go into the hot rooms of the prison.
“The correctional officer’s union has made numerous public requests for the prison housing areas to be air conditioned,” the complaint said, detailing one female guard who suffered heat exhaustion and dehydration.
The plaintiffs said the situation has led to the correctional officer’s union lending public support to the suit.
Clark said the department doesn’t have the money to make changes, conceding “a detailed cost analysis has not been done.”